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2 October 2017

Oiling the engine of Sustainability

GK St Anns Litter PickWith all the concern about ocean plastic of late, I've been revitalising my personal pledge to pick up at least one piece of plastic litter every day. In fact most days I pick at least a dozen, and I'm now getting weirdly obsessed with it. I seriously can't walk past a plastic bag without twitching to pick it up, but if I tried to get every piece of litter I saw, it would be a full time undertaking.

I know that my efforts are just a (inappropriate metaphor klaxon) drop in the ocean, but I find that the very act of picking up some litter makes me feel positive and, rather than making me think 'I've done my bit, now business as usual', it continually focusses my brain on this perennial drip, drip of plastics into our eco-system. Experience is always more visceral than anecdote.

Last month, I gave a presentation to one of my clients on the first phase of our Sustainability Champions initiation project. At the end of the initial training workshop, I had challenged each of the Champions to pledge to change one thing in their workplace to make it more sustainable. I then followed up on the pledges a month later to see how they had got on.

All the pledges were pretty mundane, incremental improvements which would hardly make a dent in the targets we had set in their Sustainability Strategy, but that was beside the point, I explained, it was the forward motion at the sharp end of the business that was important. I used a metaphor I coined a couple of years ago:

"Champions should be seen as the oil in the engine, not the fuel."

This was quoted back at me (approvingly!) during the discussion.

Identifying and implementing quick wins is a way of keeping that oil fresh. Of course it shouldn't be expected to, or distract from, the major changes required to deliver Sustainability; the knack is to do both.


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13 September 2017

Embedding Sustainability: Bottom Up or Top Down?

This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from 'Rob' (names have been changed to protect the bashful) – should you approach Sustainability from the bottom up or the top down? In response, I say both, plus another angle and add some strong caveats... 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 July 2017

The most powerful tool in Sustainability engagement

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Last Wednesday I ran a workshop to upskill Sustainability Champions at one of my clients. This week I've been writing up the results, a rather laborious task as the 12 champions present produced a whopping 320 Post-Its, with one idea on each. That means that each delegate averaged over 26 thoughts about Sustainability in just over half a day.

Just think about that. 26 separate ideas per person.

OK, a very small number were jokes, we got a few duplicates (the 'ratcheting' workshop structure I used minimises duplication), a larger number were statements of the obvious, but a substantial number were truly insightful, meaning the delegates really had to think through the issues and how they applied to the organisation. That is true engagement; you won't get that with an awareness poster!

This is why the workshop is at the core of my consultancy business. I truly believe it is the most powerful tool in Sustainability engagement.

[If you want to see how I run such successful workshops, check out our Workshop Facilitation Masterclass, which explains the powerful 'ratcheting' structure I used last week.]


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7 April 2017

Get Sustainability the right way 'round...

I recently posted an article on LinkedIn which stated that responsibility for Sustainability and authority to act should be aligned. A below the line commenter agreed saying "Those with responsibility must be given authority."

Well, on reflection, it's the other way around. If you have highly empowered Sustainability champions overruling their bosses then you will get chaos – you are undermining the way the organisation works.

It's the existing decision makers who must be given responsibility. That's the proper embedding of Sustainability into the DNA of the organisation.



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4 December 2015

The myth of bottom-up sustainability

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I couldn't have picked a better antidote to this dismal autumn than to spend 24 hours with the Interface Europe sustainability ambassadors in Scherpenzeel, Netherlands. Hearing the latest on Mission Zero (and beyond) was truly inspirational. Unfortunately I can't share the really exciting stuff (yet), but I left with no doubt in my mind that Interface will continue to be the foremost sustainability exemplar for at least another 20 years.

I had a wee mission of my own at the event. Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the 'sustainability champions' model of delivery. Every network of sustainability champions I have come across has atrophied except the ambassador programme at Interface. So what do Interface do right that everybody else gets wrong? What's the secret sauce?

I spoke to about a dozen people at the event to see what I could glean.

And the answer, surprisingly, is nothing to do with the network (although Interface does nurture the network very well).

No, what Interface has, and others don't, is transformational leadership at the top of the organisation and a robust sustainability framework in place. This gives the ambassador network the space, direction and resources to thrive.

In most other organisations sustainability champions are simply recruited/press-ganged and set loose in the sustainability jungle without a map, compass or provisions. Even if they manage to stumble in the right direction for a few steps, it is no wonder they usually end up wandering around in circles, getting lost and perishing.

In other words you have to do top-down before you can do bottom-up. Then the two can meet in the middle.


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5 February 2014

Ask Gareth: My Green Champions Aren't Happy

We're very excited here at Terra Infirma Towers about this new venture - Ask Gareth. The concept is very simple - you send me your sustainability/CSR dilemmas, challenges etc and I answer them. I intend to publish at least one of these per month, but more if you send me lots of great great questions.

This first edition answers the question "My green champions aren't happy, what can I do?"

Please add your comments and experiences in the comments below and, if you found the video of use, please share with your colleagues.


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2 December 2013

Ever seen a happy Green Champion?

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At last week's IEMA Green Jujitsu session, I asked the audience how many had a network of green champions. A forest of hands went up. I then asked who had a network of happy green champions. Most of the hands fell again.

Appointing Green Champions is one of those things people do because everybody else does it, but I have rarely seen a green champions network that works. It's a bit of a cop out, if you think about it - we'll ask people to volunteer for a worthy but poorly defined cause, give them no tools or levers to help them, and grumble when the network withers on the vine.

Here's some ideas that might help you:

  • Instead of recruiting self-selecting volunteers, target specific job roles or people of influence and make them your champions;
  • If you do recruit volunteers, use them as an advisory board to generate ideas to implement sustainability across the organisation, to comment on messaging/campaigns and/or to identify/feature in case studies;
  • Train volunteers in techniques such as green jujitsu to avoid anybody preaching at their colleagues;
  • Give recognition to individuals who do go above and beyond the call of duty;
  • Thank everybody for their contribution, whether they do much or not.

But never, ever give volunteers responsibilities - that's unfair, going on unethical.


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27 June 2011

Environmental Champions - Hit or Miss?

I don't think I've ever recommended to a client that they appoint environmental champions amongst their staff and my two books make only fleeting reference to them. And yet a huge number of organisations trying to go green have gone done the champion route. So why am I so reticent?

The simple answer is the most powerful question in our armoury - Why? What is it that environmental champions are expected to bring to culture change? I've never had that question answered satisfactorily.

The usual answer is that champions are embedded into the organisation and can provide peer-to-peer support to other staff members who want change their behaviour and act as local flag wavers for corporate green goals. Only one problem - peer-to-peer is by definition is bottom up, appointing people to roles is top down - and I believe that is a fundamental conflict.

My other problem is that I've seen the champion role widely abused. I've seen junior volunteers given energy efficiency targets for entire sites, I've seen them (post volunteering) being expected to read energy meters on a regular basis, and I've heard of them being expected to get into work before everyone else to check who has switched their computers off. That's like calling a traffic warden a "parking champion".

One of the participants at the staff engagement session I ran at the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange last week had abolished their champions programme as it had descended into a forum for whinging. Instead they had appointed "green angels" to tackle particular problems. This story certainly surprised many of the other participants who had champions - and they seemed quite surprised that I sided with the dissenter.

Let's look at some basic principles of culture change which I think conflict with the champion concept:

  • If you give people responsibility, you must give them commensurate authority and accountability - these are not the hallmarks of a voluntary champion;
  • If people volunteer for a role, they shouldn't be subject to mission creep with more and more tasks dumped on them - you will breed resentment - yet mission creep is very common for champions;
  • Peer-to-peer only works if it is genuine - you can't dictate it top down and if peers feel that one of their number is judging them it will breed distrust, destroying the whole point of the exercise;
  • If you want proper culture change, then sustainability must become everyone's responsibility. Having champions can lead to others feeling they can wash their hands of the issue.

So what's my alternative? Well, if you want to engage with green thinking people, why not create a forum to glean their ideas and share what is happening in the organisation? Then the peer-to-peer communication will come out organically rather than the artificial champions version.

Do you disagree? Have you got a thriving, effective champion programme? If so, then please share in the comments.

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26 April 2011

Don't preach to the choir

Amongst political interweb types is a phenomenon known as the 'echo chamber'. This is where a tribe of people get very excited tweeting, blogging and facebook-status-updating about an issue within their tribe, but all the retweeting, linking and liking is completely within that community. The message is crafted and refined for the audience who has already 'got it', rather than for people who are unaware, uninterested, or both. Despite the perceptions of the participants that the flurry of activity is of huge importance, it has absolutely zero impact on the wider world.

The environmental movement can be particularly guilty of this. Issues go into the echo chamber evolve and are reinforced, but rarely does anyone wade into the argument as devil's advocate, challenging the received wisdom, and the message starts going over the heads of anyone outside the circle. In fact you often get a meta layer of discussion of increasing self-righteousness, deriding those who "don't get it" and alienating the masses in the process.

If you want to change something - anything - whether in society or an organisation, this is suicide.

From a green business point of view, I have seen environmental committees where the agenda kept getting sidelined in favour of rants and moans about everyone else in the organisation who "doesn't get it". This is utterly dysfunctional and self-indulgent. If you're the change agent then you've got to realise that this is your problem, not theirs. You need to stop preaching to the choir and engage with (not preach to) the masses. This is a whole different ball game, with different language, different communication channels and different tactics.

So don't let an echo chamber form. Challenge others and challenge yourself: what is the message that will appeal to the masses?

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