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24 May 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

I haven't reviewed many Sustainability books on here of late, mainly because the few I have read recently have been terrible, some to the point of being unreadable. Frankly I didn't want to bore you with diatribes against poor authors (in both senses of the word 'poor'). However, a couple of weeks ago I took a duplicate present back to Waterstones and, on a whim, picked up Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth as a replacement. Talk about serendipity.

The titular doughnut is Raworth's analogy for a sustainable economy which is strong enough to pull people above the inner limit of the poverty line (the social foundation), yet stays within natural limits (the ecological ceiling). Within these two thresholds we should be 'agnostic' about growth. I love a simple, resonant analogy and this is one of the best Sustainability models I've come across for a long time.

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28 December 2017

Book Review: Frugal Innovation - Doing More With Less

Mrs K picked up this 2015 book by Cambridge Judge Business School academics Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu for me on the way home from a recent business trip. I've been looking for some inspiration in Sustainability thinking, so I got stuck in.

Frugal Innovation as a concept emerged from the Appropriate Technology movement and, more recently, the Bottom of the Pyramid idea championed by CK Prahalad. Fundamentally, it refers to designing consumer goods for people on very low incomes (e.g. stripped-to-the-bone functionality, smaller quantities, higher durability, better repairability).

However, Radju and Prabhu broaden the definition to include any 'doing more with less' concept and the book is as much about sustainable products and services in the 'developed world' as it is about Bottom of the Pyramid thinking. In fact, in their relentlessly upbeat and somewhat breathless prose, they quote many examples which appear only tangentially related to the idea of frugality at all – I had a constant nagging feeling I was reading a compendium of latest business thinking that the authors think is cool.

There are other problems as well – statements and statistics are often presented without evidence, source or context, and the authors fall into what I call the 'Evergreen trap', quoting Interface's eponymous carpet leasing initiative as a success, when in reality the company had to withdraw it when they found customers couldn't get their head around carpet as a revenue item. They're not the only big names to fall into this trap, but it immediately makes me question how much we can trust the multitude of other case studies quoted.

The bits I did like were the two chapters on customer engagement as this is an area of real challenge for my clients, and they include some case studies and stats I was unaware of (of course I'll have to check them out before quoting them), but overall I found the book frustrating, sprawling and sloppy. My hunt for inspiration goes on...


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4 December 2017

Most influential Sustainability books for me

I saw a post on LinkedIn yesterday asking people for their top 5 Sustainability books. I quoted the following five as the most influential in my career:

  • Material Concerns, Tim Jackson – the first time I really got sustainability, now hard to find;
  • Natural Capitalism – great theories (but implementation has proved a problem for the authors);
  • Cradle to Cradle (ditto);
  • The God Species, Mark Lynas – blows away many green sacred cows;
  • Confessions of a Radical Environmentalist – by the Godfather of Corporate Sustainability, Ray Anderson, simply brilliant.

But, as a practitioner, I have found change management books as important to my career. In many ways 'getting' Sustainability is much easier than 'getting to' Sustainability. Here are my recommendations:

  • Switch by Chip & Dan Heath;
  • Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman;
  • Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein.

Any to add? Bonus points if they're any of mine!


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20 February 2017

Book Review: Global Sustainability by Mark Lefko

lefko bookWhen I first read the bumf around Mark Lefko's new book Global Sustainability, I was a bit worried that it clashed with my own tome, The Green Executive. Both are aimed at senior management, both take a more strategic look at Sustainability and both are built around a series of interviews with senior executives. However, on the latter Lefko has roped in considerably more star wattage than I did, with Sir Richard Branson and the CEOs of TATA, Dow, Cargill, and Unilever featuring amongst the 21 interviewees.

From these interviews, Lefko has extracted 9 best practices which make up the chapter titles of the book. The content of each chapter consists mainly of interview quotes from those CEOs, some extending to quite lengthy extracts. The nine chapters are:

  1. Establish Guiding Principles
  2. Practice Long-Term Thinking
  3. Deal Fairly and Ethically with Suppliers, Employees, and Customers
  4. Be Concerned about Your Employees’ Motivation and Well-Being
  5. Support the Well-Being of the Communities Where You Do Business
  6. Form Good Partnerships
  7. Find Ways to Reduce Waste
  8. Be Adaptable—and Seize Opportunities
  9. Measure the Return on Your Sustainability Investment

The book's aim is clearly to persuade senior business executives to get on board the Sustainability train via peer pressure – if these business titans are doing Sustainability, shouldn't you be? And it does this job very well, with a consistently clear and upbeat message, reinforced by those captains of industry.

I've had plenty of arguments with publishers over book titles and, to me, Lefko's subtitle "(21 Leading CEOs show) How to do well by doing good" would be a more accurate title for the book – and one more compelling to its target audience of CEOs and those new to Sustainability than "Global Sustainability".

The book is not really a 'how-to' on making Sustainability a strategic business priority (check out The Green Executive for that!). As someone who lives corporate Sustainability day in day out, I got a couple of new insights and some nice fresh case studies, but nothing to shake up the status quo on planet Sustainability. That's not a criticism, just an observation on the target audience.

Verdict: buy it for your boss.


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1 July 2016

Optimism, Pessimism and Sustainability

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

world brainI was at a meeting of the Green Thinkers book club last night. We were discussing Prof Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" book published on the run up to the Paris talks last December. I was actually going to review the book here, but to be honest it's not a great piece of work, seemingly rushed out to give an alternative view to the Australian Government's official line during the talks (Flannery was head of the Australian Climate Commission which was abolished by the incoming Abbott Government in 2013). But the curious thing is that, contrary to the title, it's quite a depressing read.

Appropriately, the discussion around tackling climate change split amongst the pessimists and the optimists. For the former, we're royally screwed by a toxic cocktail of greed, capitalism and corruption. For the latter, of which regular readers will guess I'm a life member, we have to utilise technology, capitalism and design to deliver a massive transformation.

We sustainability optimists are not naive about the scale of the problem, rather we use that as a spur to go further, faster. We are trying to build a vision of a glorious sustainable future, not trying to scare people into action. We use all the tools at our disposal – including the power of global capitalism to bring economies of scale to green technologies.

And, if we fail, it won't be for lack of trying.

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” – H.Keller


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19 February 2016

Book Review: Doing Good Better

41pTZkw0-4L._SL160_When I was an undergraduate, I unexpectedly came into a small amount of cash as I'd been underpaid for a summer job. Rather than fritter (all) the money on beer, I thought I'd do some good and sponsor a child in a third world country. £144.00 a year seemed a small price to pay to salve my shame at being born relatively rich.

My naiveté was shattered when I realised that the whole child sponsorship thing was just bait to get well-meaning people like me onto a mailing list so I could receive a begging letter from the charity every month - a typical opening sentence was "Imagine waking every morning to hunger gnawing at your stomach..." I also discovered the money was not going directly to the child concerned, but unspecified "projects in the area". My dream of dragging one child out of the mire of poverty had absolutely no basis in reality. I'd been had.

When I later found out how much the CEO of that particular charity earned, I got very angry indeed – no hunger gnawing at his fat cat stomach I can tell you. I concluded the charity industry was just another way of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor – and one which was much less honest than the others.

Reading William MacAskill's Doing Good Better has blown that cynicism out of the water - not a bad effort for such a short, punchy book. MacAskill points out that if the only good thing that all international development aid in history has ever done is eradicate smallpox, then it is still money well spent, given what we spend on combating diseases in the developed world. He notes that many charitable ideas are worse than useless, and that even worthwhile projects have an difference in impact from the worst to the best of up to a factor of 500.

So, MacAskill argues, we should give to charity and make other acts of altruism, but instead of following our emotions, we should apply some highly rational analysis to our options to make sure our money is delivering. That analysis includes use of metrics such as quality-adjusted life year (QALY) and robust randomised controlled testing of different options. Doing this type of rigorous assessment, for example, revealed that deworming children has a much, much bigger positive effect on their education (and thus their life prospects) than an 'obvious' and sexier solution such as donating school books.

Likewise, MacAskill shows, many people would be advised not to work in an altruistic job unless they have particularly in-demand skills (such jobs are usually over-subscribed so it makes little difference whether you do them or someone else does), but would make a bigger impact by earning a higher salary in a conventional job instead and donating a chunk instead.

When he moves into issues, such as climate change, MacAskill takes a similarly hyper-rational approach as Mark Lynas, blowing myths about carbon offsetting out of the water. He points out that, if you want to save a tonne of carbon a year, you can either go veggie (which MacAskill already is), or buy the equivalent offset from, say, Cool Earth for just $5. You can easily save more carbon than you emit by donating a modest amount to an effective scheme. Fairtrade, on the other hand, is exposed as structurally unsound.

The one point where I felt MacAskill was getting a bit too carried away with his contrarian thesis  was sweatshops where he made the 'better than hard scrabble farming' argument. That's true if those are the only two options, but there is a third – manufacturing jobs with decent working conditions.

If you give money to charity on a purely emotional basis, then you should read this book – it will make your money go further and keep charities on their toes. If, like me, your donations have dried up due to scepticism about whether I'm doing good or paying someone to make me feel good, you should read this book. It may be a rather cold, hard look at altruism, but in my opinion that's exactly what's needed.


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11 September 2015

Thinking Fast and Slow about Sustainability

KahnemanYears ago, I got into a lengthy, but pretty pointless e-mail argument about climate science. On paper, I had no chance. My opponent was a pre-eminent chemist with a lengthy publication list and a reputation for debunking bad science in his field – including exposing a high profile 'breakthrough' which made the mainstream media. But, the debate soon settled into an unexpected pattern, the inverse of what you would expect.

He, the scientist, would challenge me using unsupported 'evidence' copied and pasted from right-wing libertarian US websites (his own politics were firmly left of centre) and I, the layman, with much needed signposting from, would come back with peer-reviewed research which debunked his debunking. Eventually, he half-backed down with a much caveated admission that maybe, just maybe, carbon emissions were driving long term climatic trends.

The question that has bugged me ever since is "How could someone so clever be so dumb?" Reading Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's superlative book Thinking, Fast and Slow this summer has answered my question – and it's all about how our brains really work.

Sciences such as chemistry are carried out under very controlled laboratory conditions. After years of working in a particular field, practitioners build up a strong intuition for what is probable and improbable (the 'fast' thinking of the title). They can generally trust their intuition as long as they keep to what they know.

More unpredictable, real world, highly complex issues like economics and politics (and, almost certainly, climate) cannot be judged by hunches – 'expert' pundits in these fields are wrong in their 'off the top of the head' predictions far more often than they are right. Kahneman argues that in such disciplines even the simplest mathematical model based on data from past experience (ie slow, analytical thinking) will comfortably out-perform expert intuition.

My colleague had got himself into a vicious cycle of trying to back up his intuition by grasping at anything, no matter what its provenance, that supported it. This is classic 'confirmation bias' – where instead of the analytical part of our brain keeping the intuitive part in check, it tries to find evidence to justify the hunch. His biggest mistake was backing his scientific intuition over the knowledge of others (those climatologists I was quoting) in a field he knew little about – a little humility would have saved him a lot of embarrassment.

I've believed for a long time that psychology is the missing piece in the sustainability. Nothing will change unless people start making different decisions – whether that's choosing to recycle a cardboard box at home or setting ambitious national climate targets. And if you want to encourage people to make different decisions, you have got to learn more about how they make those decisions and what can possibly change them.

I can't adequately summarise Kahneman's book here, except to say that it will change the way you think about how other people think. For example, if you try to force change on someone, their brains will exaggerate the downside and ignore the benefits. However, if people come to that conclusion by themselves, that flips around – they exaggerate the benefits and downplay the risks. I have made a career out of doing this – facilitating change rather than proposing it – and now I know why it works!

Highly recommended.


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3 August 2015

Book Review: Happy City by Charles Montgomery

happy cityOne of my closest school friends, Conor, now lives with his wife and two kids in a dormitory commuter town in Maryland, USA. My partner and I went to visit about a decade ago and stupidly forgot to take our driving licenses so we couldn't hire a car.

Our first full day there, we wanted to travel into Washington to do the tourist thing. Conor offered to drop us off at the railway station, but, as it was only a mile away, we said we'd walk. Conor said "No way. My Dad tried that once and he came back white and shaking. He had to cross several interstate slip roads and nearly died." The idea that you couldn't walk from a suburban house to a station a mile away – or to any form of shop or other amenity for that matter – simply stunned us.

This kind of living is the target of Charles Montgomery's Happy City. He argues that uncontrolled sprawl makes us unhappy by locking us into our cars and failing to give us space to interact and be convivial. He travels the world to show us exemplars: Vancouver, Bogota, Paris, Freiburg (Germany) and Houten (the Netherlands). As he winds his way, he lightens the design theory with travelogue notes, touring the neighbourhoods with some of the experts he interviews and seeing first hand what they talking about.

While the focus is on the happiness of a city's citizens, Montgomery cleverly weaves in the bigger picture of sustainability. The same solutions that make us happy – local services everybody can access by bus, by foot or on bike – come with a much lower carbon footprint than sprawl.

Montgomery acknowledges limitations in some attempts at urban design, but non-US readers would benefit from a deeper analysis of heroic failure (we already get the 'sprawl bad' message). For example, Malmö famously tried to design a car-free neighbourhood at Western Harbour but ended up having to retrofit a multi-storey carpark – and I could quote more. Given the theme of the book is  urban design, it would be good to know why so many well-meaning designs have failed and others succeed.

That grumble aside, I was certainly inspired by Happy City. Any book that demonstrates so vividly that sustainability, happiness and economic vibrancy can go hand in hand is alright by me.


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21 June 2013

Book Review: The Burning Question, Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

Burning QuestionThe central thesis of The Burning Question is that all our wonderful solutions to the climate crisis - renewables, nuclear, population control, energy efficiency - come to nowt unless about half of fossil fuel reserves remain where they are - underground.

That might seem a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but all too often we ignore the obvious in favour of the complex. For example, many have called for the exploitation of shale gas to drive down emissions from coal burning. But use of shale gas in the US has simply driven down the price of coal, leading to generators in other countries such as the UK switching from conventional gas to coal and increasing emissions. This type of 'rebound effect' suggests that, if fossil fuels are in the game, they will be used.

As the authors point out, financial markets are clearly assuming that identified reserves will be exploited at a similar or faster rate than they are today. This means they have rated the risk of those reserves being written off in favour of a low carbon economy as zero. It is worth noting that the markets have been wrong, very wrong, recently on the dotcom boom and the subprime mortgage market with quite spectacular results, but it would be more reassuring if they saw a clean energy revolution as something worth investing in.

After discussing the reasons why this might be, the authors take a slight, but interesting and potentially crucial, tangent. By moving swiftly to tackle non-fossil fuel greenhouse gases, such as methane from landfill and nitrous oxides, we could relatively painlessly buy ourselves some time to tackle the more ingrained problem of fossil fuels.

The longer term solutions put forward for our fossil fuel addiction are:

  • Waking up: facing the facts;
  • Capping the carbon: a global cap and trade scheme and divesting in fossil fuel companies;
  • Pushing the right technologies hard: carbon capture, renewables, nuclear - we'll need them all;
  • Dealing with land and smoke: protecting forests, dealing with methane and black carbon;
  • Making a plan B: geoengineering;
  • What can I do - personal interventions such as speaking up and eating less beef and lamb.

This is a short, punchy, provocative book. However, it suffers from the problem that most such books suffer - that the solutions provided at the end are rather vague compared to the precision with which the authors analyse the problem. In this case they briefly cover the pros and cons of different options but rarely nail their colours to any particular mast (with the notable exception of the need to tackle non-fossil fuel sources of greenhouse gases.)

That grumble aside, The Burning Question is definitely worth a read, if only to remind ourselves of that key central truth - that about half of the world's fossil fuel reserves must remain untouched, or everything else we do will be in vain.


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20 May 2013

Book Review - The Green Book: New Directions For Liberals in Government

green-bookI've been a member of the UK's third political party, the Liberal Democrats, for the best part of a decade - and an elected Councillor here in Newcastle for most of that time (full disclosure!). When I first joined, the party seemed so far from power that its earnest and sometimes fiery debates on policy seemed somewhat quaint, but the 2010 General Election changed everything.

With no clear majority for either the incumbent Labour Party or the opposition Conservatives, the decision to go into coalition with the latter, on the grounds they got more of the vote than anyone else, sent shockwaves through the party, the 'Westminster bubble' and the electorate. Suddenly what the Lib Dems did or said meant something - for better or worse.

The central thrust of this new tome, The Green Book, is that the party should focus on its strong reputation on environmental issues to define the next stage in its history. The editors make the case on three grounds:

  • Moral: many environmental pressures are now hitting critical levels and the time for action is now;
  • Economic: a green economy could rescue the UK economy from its current torpor;
  • Political: as the Conservatives' initial ambition for 'the greenest Government ever' has faded, the Lib Dems have continued to fly the flag, providing clear green water between the coalition parties.

What follows is a collection of 31 essays designed to set out a vision for eco-liberalism, as distinct from the eco-socialism championed by the Green Party. The authors are predominately MPs and party insiders, but many of the latter are sustainability professionals in their day jobs, and they are augmented by heavyweight guest authors. As a result, the majority of the pieces are intellectually hefty pieces of work, going way beyond the usual political blandishments. Here are some of the key themes I distilled:

  • The need for political leadership: across the UK economy, companies are sitting on mountains of cash which could be invested into greentech, if they the confidence to do so;
  • The need for a narrative: too much of the environmental debate has consisted of barrages of data and statistics, we need a narrative to take people with us on the quest for sustainability;
  • The need to sell the wider benefits of a green economy as well as the risks of inaction: energy security, rebalancing the economy, job creation etc;
  • The need to tackle the (politically more difficult) demand side of the economy as well as the supply side;
  • The need to understand and work with prevailing culture: "Persuading people to change their behaviour is, in general, only likely to succeed when it goes with the grain of their lifestyles and beliefs." (fits with my concept of Green Jujitsu);
  • The need for finance: for example, 3% of companies in the Cambridge greentech cluster have venture capital funding, compared to 36-40% in sectors such as healthcare or IT;
  • The need for policy integration: only the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sees a green economy as more than a standalone issue, the need to see resource management as more than a waste issue etc;
  • The need to break up vested interests and cartels to open up markets and devolve solutions to the local level.

Given there are more than two dozen authors, the book provides a smorgasbord of potential solutions to these issues rather than a tightly defined manifesto. The ideas range from high level principles, most well understood in the sustainability sector such as the circular economy, to some quite specific solutions, such as how to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow to invest without upsetting national finances. There is however a significant job left to do to weave these together into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, develop that narrative to make a compelling case to the electorate - we're still deep in policy wonk territory here.

Obviously this is a party political publication, and non-party supporters will have to put up with a degree of Lib Dem braggadocio, but there's plenty of red meat in here for environmental policy geeks no matter what their political viewpoint. As many psephologists are predicting another coalition Government after the 2015 election, and the party leadership has adopted its key thrust, The Green Book could become very influential indeed.


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22 March 2013

Book Review: The New Capitalist Manifesto by Umair Haque

The-New-Capitalist-Manifesto-Haque-Umair-9781422158586The New Capitalist Manifesto by HBR blogger Umair Haque is the third tract I've read recently on how to make capitalism work for everyone, the others being Conscious Capitalism by Whole Foods Markets boss John Mackey and Creating Shared Value by Michael Porter and Gary Kramer.

All three have the same underlying prognosis - that capitalism as it is now, while bringing many societal benefits, has been allowed to exploit nature and society for selfish ends, diminishing opportunities for all - The Tragedy of the Commons, in effect. And the solution put forward by all three is fundamentally the same - that the successful business of the 21st Century must nurture its societal, natural and economic underpinnings rather than depleting them.

Haque's concept of 'Constructive Capitalism' is certainly the most meaningful of the three, acknowledging that capitalism has been destructive in its pursuit of what Haque calls 'thin value' - economic benefits that are outweighed by the societal and environmental costs that those benefits incurred. Thus a $3 hamburger may lead to $30 of wider costs.

Haque calls for a refocus onto 'thick value' - economic benefits which deliver net societal and environmental benefits too - in other words, Constructive Capitalism. He identifies 15 'insurgent' companies who are pursuing thick value and throughout the rest of the book compares them to more traditionally-minded 'incumbents', so Apple gets compared to Sony, Nike to Adidas, Whole Foods to Safeway etc.

The book explores the five cornerstones of constructive capitalism, of which the insurgents have adopted at least one:

  • Moving from value chains to value cycles to utilise resources by renewing instead of exploiting;
  • Moving from value propositions to value conversations to respond to demand;
  • Moving from strategies to philosophies to become more competitive in the long term;
  • Moving from protecting markets to 'completing' them - ie expanding the markets;
  • Moving from goods to 'betters' which enhance rather than deplete society.

Obviously points 1 and 5 have most relevance to the environmental arm of sustainability, looking up and down the value chain cycle. It was great to see 'green' so deeply embedded into the concept rather than the lip service it so often gets.

Each of these cornerstones has its own 'step' to make the shift - in order they are:

  • Loss advantage (as opposed to cost advantage);
  • Responsiveness;
  • Resilience;
  • Creativity;
  • Difference.

And this leads to my sole criticism of the book. While all of this is described vibrantly and clearly, there are a few too many nested lists of five bullet points of principles/neologisms which meant a bit too much riffling back to remind the reader of where exactly they are at any point - and the definition of that neologism. Some of these, like 'loss advantage', aren't entirely intuitive. This is a minor point, but it did dilute the message.

Having said that, of the three rebooting capitalism manifestos mentioned above, I found The New Capitalist Manifesto the most comprehensive, forward thinking and inspiring. My main take-away was the need to pursue thick value over thin value, and there is another whole debate about how Governments can encourage the former and penalise the latter to accelerate the transition. If you are interested in the big picture of where business should be going in the 21st Century, read this book.



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27 February 2013

Book Review: Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey & Raj Sisodia

Conscious capitalismJohn Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a controversial figure in the corporate social responsibility world. He is a proud proponent of the social benefits of free market capitalism, he is an anti-union, low tax, small-Government libertarian, he has made doubtful noises on the predicted impacts of climate change and noisily opposed President Obama's health care proposals. Yet he runs one of the most successful green businesses in the world, caps the ratio of the best paid in his company to 19 times that of the average (compared to 350-500 times you get in similar corporations) and is an active supporter of small, local suppliers to his stores. Not easy to pigeonhole, to say the least.

So it was with much anticipation and a little trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Conscious Capitalism which, although it is co-written with the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Inc, is written in Mackey's voice. The book's first words, inside the fly cover, quote the Conscious Capitalism Credo:

"We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more."

Mackey and Sisodia make a pretty convincing case for the benefits that the free market has brought to society, blaming its ills on crony-capitalism, state capitalism or unintended side effects. But, they acknowledge, far too many corporations are like caterpillars, munching their way through everything within reach, when they should be like butterflies - beautiful and pollenating the eco-system upon which they depend.

And that is the essence of Conscious Capitalism - every business is part of a complex eco-system of suppliers, customers, employees, investors, communities and the environment itself. And by nurturing, rather than exploiting, these other stakeholders, everybody wins. This is similar to Porter & Kramer's concept of Creating Shared Value - investment in customers, suppliers and communities increases the pie for all. However, whereas Porter & Kramer make their case in business terms, Mackey claims Conscious Capitalism aims to fulfil a higher social purpose and is driven by love and caring, not profits. Profit is a means to delivering a company's higher purpose, not the driving force.

The book is very elegantly written and structured, going through the four tenets - higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture. However, it is much more about an attitude than practical take-away ideas or lists of top tips. And it has to be said that the frequency of the use of the word 'love' is quite startling, even to an old bleeding heart liberal like myself.

My problem with Conscious Capitalism is not the butterflies like Whole Foods Market, but the caterpillars. The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates the need for the regulation of global commons, and the most global of all, the atmosphere, is difficult to protect by relying on the good intentions of many individual business leaders. Maybe this is why Mackey downplays climate change (subtly in the book) as it doesn't fit the model.

On the other hand, as a manifesto for progressive business, Conscious Capitalism hits the nail on the head and provides plenty of (whole grain) food for thought. Certainly between chapters I found myself mulling on the higher purpose of Terra Infirma - "Bringing Sustainability to Life" - and reassessed a recent decision I made which I thought was in the best interest of the business but now realise I got wrong.

In summary, a breath of fresh air that will challenge some of your more entrenched thinking.


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10 August 2012

Book Review: The Zeronauts by John Elkington

John Elkington one of the sustainability field's leading pioneers and in his latest book he looks at those at the cutting edge of sustainability thinking who he dubs Zeronauts - the people who are aiming for zero - zero waste, zero emissions, zero toxins. Zeronauts are people like the late great Ray Anderson of Interface who launched the groundbreaking Mission Zero programme to have a zero impact on the planet by 2020. Zero is of course the ultimate stretch target and a great motivator as Elkington reminds us throughout the book.

The structure of the book takes us through three quintets of concepts:

5Cs of scale: citizen, corporation, cities, countries, civilisations;

5Es of maturity: eureka, experiementation, enterprise, eco-systems, economy;

5Ps of examples: zero population, zero pandemics, zero poverty, zero pollution, zero proliferation.

So far, so good. But the big problem is, for me at least, the book just doesn't deliver on the central promise. Many of the examples are of bog standard sustainability efforts rather than the special case of zero, diluting the core message. In fact the most insightful critique of the zero approach in the book comes not from Elkington, but in a series of lengthly blog extracts on zero waste from Andrew Winston of Green to Gold fame. Beyond this, there was little about the implications of, say, a zero waste policy to a single company and no mention of key enabling concepts such as industrial symbiosis. The "How Zeronauts Tackle Pollution" box could be titled "How Everyone Tackles Pollution" so generic is the content.

I also found the presence of many on the 'Zeronauts Roll of Honour' to be debatable - for example James Hansen is a great scientist who has bravely stuck his head over the parapet to warn of the dangers of climate change, but I have never heard a proposal from him that fits the zero theme - and none is presented here to justify his inclusion. The list appears to consist of sustainability practitioners that Elkington admires rather than Zeronauts per se. And don't get me started on the five figure year format.

That's not to say there aren't loads of interesting ideas and nuggets in the book, which I have to say is beautifully presented, and the Zeronauts meme is brilliant in itself, but I was expecting a tautly drawn up manifesto for the zero movement, or a critique of it, and this falls well short of either. Zeronauts could and should have been an essential text, but it's more of a curate's egg. Frustrating.


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7 June 2012

Book Review: Mad Like Tesla by Tyler Hamilton

As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.

Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn't and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account...) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section's funding cut.

That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I've kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla - who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more - was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies' earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.

Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream - space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices - all trying to make the leap over the "valley of death" from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing - controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons - the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged - the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.

Hamilton's central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn't fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by - the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.

I really liked this book - zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors' stories and while he gives his 'madmen' the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it's an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.

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18 April 2012

Book Review: The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin

International energy adivsor Jeremy Rifkin's newish book The Third Industrial Revolution has been getting quite a lot of attention in the press, so I thought I'd better give it a read. Rifkin's central thesis is that the second industrial revolution - the rise of the oil & gas economy which superseded the original, coal-fired industrial revolution - has entered its endgame and a new, distributed energy strategy is required to get the world out of its current economic and environmental fix. While we cling to the oil economy, Rifkin argues, climate change will become dangerous and rising prices will smother any economic recovery.

Rifkin calls his vision for a new approach to energy 'lateral power' - a kind of Energy 2.0 (to coin a phrase) which will adopt the distributed and participative economic model we see in the digital economy. There are five pillars to his vision:

1. A big shift to renewable energy

2. Transforming building stock to micro-power

3. Hydrogen economy and other energy storage systems

4. An 'internet of energy' to allow trading between individuals, companies and countries (ie a smart grid)

5. A shift in transport to electric and fuel cell vehicles

A subtext of the book is that the US should become more like Europe in its approach to the economy (probably more like Germany to be specific), which may raise eyebrows across the pond given the current political discourse. Rifkin clearly enjoys his access to top international politicians such as Angela Merkel. In fact his name dropping can get a tad wearing at times - although it is leavened with his rather blunt assessments of those who 'don't get it' - President Obama, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are on the list - and those who do, some of whom may surprise some readers, such as UK Premier David Cameron. Those on the 'don't get it' list are criticised not so much for a lack of interest, but for their inability to grasp the need for a distributed system - trying to build a renewable energy system on the centralised fossil fuel template just won't work.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in it from a conceptual point of view, in fact much of the 'lateral power' approach was sketched out by the late German MP (and father of the feed in tariff) Herman Scheer in his book The Solar Economy which was published more than a decade ago. But what Rifkin does very successfully is make a convincing case that the time for change has come given the economic and environmental challenges we currently face. And, let's face it, that's the vital message to get across to policy makers across the globe.

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6 February 2012

Book Reviews: Hot, Flat & Crowded and The God Species

I don't tend to read many "green" books these days - not because I think I know it all, but because I'm topping up my knowledge everyday simply by doing my job, so sitting down in the evening and opening a weighty tome at p1 is less than appealing. However, I had heard a lot about these two titles so I read them back to back. On the face of it the two cover similar ground - charting the scale of the environmental challenge and what we need to do to fix it, but they go about their jobs in quite different ways.

Hot, Flat & Crowded by Thomas Friedman is a few years old now (I picked up my copy in a second hand book stall at my son's school), but I had somehow managed to avoid the works of this pillar of US green thinking. The book is very well researched and covers a huge amount of ground including some concepts I was unfamiliar with such as "Dutch Disease" - the negative impact of sudden discoveries of natural resources - and the link between human rights in OPEC countries and the price of oil. Friedman's main thesis is that while the US is addicted to oil it will never free itself from the threat from militant Islam and will end up getting crushed by the Chinese economic juggernaut. Maybe it was Friedman's assumption of a US readership, or the reliance on lengthy quotes from the good and the great from around the world, but frankly I found reading Hot, Flat & Crowded a bit of a trudge.

You can't say the same about Mark Lynas' zippy new book The God Species. The thesis here is that as we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power, to stop the damage before it is too late. Lynas uses the Planetary Boundaries Group's set of 10 9 global environmental pressures to assess the threat from everything from climate change to loss of freshwater before proposing the most effective way of dealing with each problem. While doing so he lays into right-wing anti-environmental libertarians and left-wing greenies with equal abandon, arguing that the former ignore the science on the problems, but the latter similarly ignore the evidence on the most promising solutions. Not content with lauding the green bogeymen nuclear and GM, he delights in proposing water privatisation, carbon offsetting and geoengineering techniques - all anathema to the green movement.

Overall I found The God Species refreshing, entertaining and informative - certainly enhancing my knowledge of the nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification to name but two. Lynas (and indeed Friedman) is one of an emerging breed of what I call 'rational environmentalists' who say "forget the politics and the sacred cows, look at the facts, find the solutions that work". I too have long believed that while the political green movement may have done great work flagging up problems, they are hamstrung by their own dogma when it comes to solutions - nothing is ever good enough for them. That's not to say I'm swallowing Lynas' conclusions wholesale just yet - there is a faint whiff of wilful contrarianism about the book that makes me want to seek out second opinions - but he has certainly made me challenge some of my own shibboleths, and that's never a bad thing.


The God Species: a must read.

Hot, Flat & Crowded: ideal for American students of geopolitics.

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23 August 2011

Green Executive Review Round-up

When you read this I'll be off on holiday for two weeks visiting family in Belfast. So we'll be on holiday blogging routine - about twice a week rather than thrice - and the topics may reflect the holiday spirit.

First up, there have been quite a few reviews of The Green Executive since its publication, so I thought I'd do a quick round up.

Elaine Cohen on said:

"The Green Executive is an essential book for those who want a leadership view of how to make a business sustainable, from how to address the risks to how to exploit the opportunities. The book is nicely populated with models, frameworks and ways to advance, and is pitched exactly right to make it interesting without getting bogged down in academic texts. Using tools that include Gareth Kane's Sustainability Maturity Model or his summary of new and emerging green markets, green executives may just become a mainstream feature of business."

Jessica Shankleman on BusinessGreen said:

" his lively new book The Green Executive, a well written manual designed to help business leaders improve the environmental impact of their company."

Nick Smith in Engineering & Technology said:

"But it doesn't have to be this way, argues Kane in his well-informed and public-spirited new book. Why not, instead of tinkering around the edges of sustainability, go the whole hog and make it a pillar of your corporate DNA? There are, as he explains, sound commercial reasons for following this track."

Florian Kaefer on the Sustainable Futures Blog:

"only a few books really stand out from the crowd... One of those outstanding books comes from Gareth Kane... Sustainability leadership – what CEOs and business leaders need to know in terms of sustainability, is aptly summarized in Gareth’s new book The Green Executive."

And a couple of readers on have left comments (none yet on

"I would strongly recommend this book to any organisation"

"This book is a must read for businesses everywhere."

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5 April 2011

The Green Graveyard - A Requiem

Back in 2002 I saw US green marketeer Jacquelyn Ottman give a presentation at a conference in London entitled "The Green Graveyard" - the place where clever but ill-conceived green products and services go to die. It was one of those rare moments that really blows your mind on a subject - and The Green Graveyard was such a powerful metaphor for me that I have quoted it in both my books (fully attributed of course). Thousands of people have seen me wave an early model (not so-) compact fluorescent lamp around as I speak - that case study is straight out of The Green Graveyard (with permission).

So when Ottman's latest book, The New Rules of Green Marketing, came out I ordered it right away and sat down to read with relish. One problem. No Green Graveyard. Not a whiff of it. I was going to review the book in depth here, but I can't objectively - it's like going to see Motorhead and them not playing The Ace of Spades - no matter how good the rest of the gig is, the omission is going to leave a deflated feeling. It's a fine book, very accessible, nice case studies, good summaries, comprehensive, particularly suitable for someone new to green marketing, but I would like to have seen a bit more on how and why the case studies work. I'll leave it at that.

But The Green Graveyard is/was an concept of genius - simple, powerful and memorable - and a stark warning to everyone and anyone trying to bring green products and services to market. The Graveyard is full of such products and services that have failed in their marketplace, usually because they assume that the customer will accept a compromise on price, performance, convenience, aesthetics or prestige in return for green credentials when only a tiny minority will. No-one wants an ugly light bulb in their living room - no matter how energy efficient it is - so to avoid the Graveyard, you must develop a bulb which is aesthetically pleasing as well as efficient.

I would love to have created such a metaphor - and I hope Ottman will resurrect it.

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19 January 2011

"Switch" and Sustainability

I've just finished reading the wonderful book Switch: How to change things when change is hard by Chip & Dan Heath. It's one of those books that takes a topic which, for most people, is something of an amorphous soup of ideas, refines it down to the essentials, adds in a couple of fresh perspectives, and packages the lot in a simple framework that makes it much easier to apply. In sustainability, change management is the difference between success and failure. As an engineer I hate to say it, but technology is the easy bit.

The Heath brothers use a great analogy for people and/or organisations - a rider guiding an elephant along a path. The rider is the rational, data crunching part of our brains, the elephant is the emotional parts of our brains (which we don't like admitting is stronger than the rider), and the path is our situation/environment. The book gives the following menu of options for effective change:

Direct the rider:

  • Follow the bright spots - see what's working and copy it (more effective than focussing on problems);
  • Script the critical moves - make very specific instructions where necessary;
  • Point to the destination - define the desired endpoint.

Motivate the elephant:

  • Find the feeling - make people connect emotionally with the topic (knowing isn't enough);
  • Shrink the change - break it into easily digestible chunks;
  • Grow your people - instil a 'growth mindset' where people always want to do better.

Shape the Path:

  • Tweak the environment - make it easy to do the right thing, harder to do the wrong thing;
  • Build habits - habitual behaviour is 'free';
  • Rally the herd - behaviour is contagious.

The Heaths illustrate their points with a huge number of case studies, but none of the in depth examples include sustainability (apart from a comment that climate change campaigners shouldn't talk in terms of parts per million carbon dioxide if they want to succeed). So I thought I would look at some of the change management tools I have found successful and see how they map against this framework.

1. Strategies, management systems, action plans etc

These are all 'rider' type solutions, ignoring the elephant, which is why organisations find it hard to embed them into the organisational culture. Systems and technologies may be installed, but are unused and people tend to follow their old habits. At best, some of the 'shape the path' principles may be included in the action plans and sheer force of will from management might just make them habitual over time. Don't get me wrong, these elements are essential for the rider and the path, but for them to succeed the elephant needs attention.

2. Switch it off campaigns

Such simplistic instructions are for the rider - scripting the moves - and you simply have to hope they feed through to the elephant. The best example I have seen, Northern Foods' colour labelling of machines (red = leave on, green = switch off if left on, amber = ask supervisor), tweaks the situation to encourage and facilitate good behaviour and to a certain extent 'shrinks the change'. If you get the message right, then the instruction can touch a deeper nerve - my friends at GPM Network developed a staff campaign for a charity which revolved around messages like "Switching off this PC every night is the equivalent to an £XX donation to our projects".

3. Involving staff in generating solutions

This is where the elephant gets some serious attention. People love being part of something exciting (the feeling) and encourages people to grow and the problem to shrink as it is better understood. Pride in a solution will mean it is more likely to be used properly. Done properly in groups this approach will rally the herd as teams see their ideas take fruit and put pressure on peers to make them succeed.

4. Staff competitions

Again an elephant type solution. People love competing - or we wouldn't pay footballers gazillions a day to run up and down a piece of grass after a ball - so competition taps into our emotional elephant. Dividing staff into teams and awarding a notional prize to the team that, say, cuts its carbon most, is a very effective method of staff engagement. The herd instinct is there too - if someone is letting the side down, their peers will soon let them know.

5. Training

Very much a mixture of scripting the moves and growing your people, but it needs to be part of wider methods to have an effect. Otherwise the elephant goes back to its old habits with the occasional guilty reminder from its rider. In my training courses I try to bring elephant-centric elements into the sessions by including elements of section 3 above.

In conclusion, I whole-heartedly recommend the book if you are serious about any form of change management in your organisation. Sustainability fits very well with the model - as you can see from the above. Organisations tend to provide their staff with information, but find, as the Switch authors repeat, knowing isn't enough - you've got to tap into that emotional feeling (some examples here) and create the right situation.

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6 April 2010

Book Review: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson

This book seemed to take an age to get published in the UK, and I had it on pre-order as soon as I knew it was coming as, in terms of green business leadership, Ray Anderson is the Guv'nor. His company, Interface, is the least likely champion of green business that you could imagine - they are the world's biggest manufacturer of carpet tiles, made from oil-based chemicals using huge amounts of energy and producing tonnes of toxic waste - if they can do it, anyone can.

Anderson first wrote a book, Mid-Course Correction, in 1998 describing his decision to turn Interface into a sustainable company back in 1994 and this book, he says, is an update of that journey from the point of view of ten years later. The title of the first book comes from Anderson's epiphany on a flight reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. He had been given the book after struggling with the question "What is Interface doing about the environment?".

The answer was the radical Mission Zero - the like of which I have seen nowhere else - to have a zero ecological footprint by 2020. Yes, zero. In order to achieve this, Interface developed the idea of "Mount Sustainability" which has seven faces - all of which have to be climbed:

1. Zero waste
2. Eliminating emissions and effluent
3. Renewable energy
4. Recycled or renewable materials
5. Making transport resource efficient
6. Sensitizing stakeholders
7. Redesigning commerce

There are too many examples of how they have progressed on these faces to list here, but here are a couple of my favourites:

• turning the perceived cost of installing solar energy in one factory - enough to cover the whole supply chain's carbon emissions - into a business opportunity. The result: a new product, Solar-Made carpet, which has won huge public sector contracts.
• developing a new carpet fixing tape, inspired by the tiny hairs that allow geckos' feet to cling to any surface, to eliminate the need for glue and make the carpet easier to recover.
• using landfill gas to heat one of their factories and cut methane emissions
• the "entropy" carpet tile, again inspired by nature - this time leaves on a forest floor, which can be laid in any direction.

Interface isn't afraid to fail either. Their much talked about "Evergreen" carpet leasing service (part of face 7) was a marketplace failure - mainly because their customer's financial systems and the US tax system couldn't cope with carpet being a revenue item rather than a capital item.

If I have to criticise anything about the book, it is that the writing itself is a bit clunky in places and threads sometimes get lost. For example, in the chapter "One small digression and six lessons" I could only count two lessons, and the biographical nature of the first few chapters suddenly disappears until the end, giving a slightly uneven tone. A very minor criticism, but a bit more polish would make the message so much more compelling.

But in summary, Interface is my No 1 green business and this book goes a long way to explaining how Anderson and his team did it - so, buy it, read it, buy a copy for your colleagues!

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