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12 January 2018

Lessons from 'The War On Plastic'

So, the big news this week is that PM Theresa May has listened to me and announced a 'war on plastic waste' at the launch of the long awaited 25 year Environment Plan. Like most commentators my opinion is the plan contains all the right subjects and targets but is light on the actions required now to get us on to the right trajectory.

Here are some wider thoughts about what we can learn from the announcement:

  • Sustainability is now right at the top of the political agenda and that is a good thing, no matter who is in charge. The Government has finally woken up to the fact that the UK is doing rather well on the environment and by showing leadership they can do even better (and appeal to some of the young people who have deserted the Conservative party in droves - quite a carrot for more action).
  • Everybody is an environmentalist: the ocean plastics issue has united everybody from the deepest green to the climate-sceptics at the Daily Mail (right) and even those purveyors of nonsense, the Global Warming Policy Forum. If you want to engage people in Sustainability, be prepared to start the conversation on common ground, particularly with something very tangible (like the iconic picture of a seahorse carrying a cotton bud).
  • Blue Planet II is already one of the most significant TV programmes ever. Ignore the green snobs, if we want real change, we've got to get the message into the mainstream.
  • 25-years is too long for a plan: Even if you want to set distant aspirations, I usually recommend 10 years for Sustainability Strategies as this is long enough to make real change on the ground (e.g. capital investment) but not too distant for decision-makers to think it'll be for their successors to sort out.
  • Aspiration without action remains just that. If I was advising Mrs May and Mr Gove, I'd have insisted on a backcasting process to fill in the gaps between those goals and what needs to happen right now to get on the right trajectory. This is what I do with my clients and it works extremely well.

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25 March 2013

Did Earth Hour do it for you?

earth hour

Did you switch your lights off for Earth Hour on Saturday night?

Did sitting in the dark for an hour make you feel better?

Or did you do it reluctantly because you felt you really should?

What message do you think it communicated?

Do you think it engaged anybody who wasn't already engaged?

Do you think it made a difference?


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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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14 November 2011

Shock Tactics Can Backfire

During one of my recent sessions on culture change for sustainability, a very earnest young lady asked me about the use of shock tactics to make people take the environment more seriously. My short answer was "no, it doesn't work" but with my usual esprit de l'escalier, I thought of a great analogy on the way home.

I was using the elephant model of culture change in the session. In this model the elephant's rider is our conscious mind, the elephant itself is our subconscious and the path is the environment we operate in. So to change people's behaviour we have to instruct the rider, inspire the elephant and shape the path in a way that the elephant & rider go the way we want them to.

If you try shock tactics, it is the the equivalent of throwing a firecracker under the elephant. A number of things can happen:

  • The firecracker is too small, so the elephant ignores it and does what it was doing;
  • The firecracker scares the elephant so it retreats back down the path and refuses to move;
  • The firecracker panics the elephant and it charges off in a random direction.

None of these are desirable outcomes.

The most famous example of such tactics were the UK Government's "nightmare fairytale" climate change adverts on TV back in early 2010 which were criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency, which had no discernible positive impact, but caused a backlash from many elements of the media and jubilation in the climate change denial movement. These adverts blundered on many levels: people don't like being preached at by politicians, the scare tactics were aimed at making you fear for your children and there was no clear call to action. You'll notice they haven't been repeated - for good reason.

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18 July 2011


I was delighted at the weekend to be sent this amazing picture by Melvin Redeker of him reading The Green Executive while on a kayaking trip around the North Sea island of Noss. Melvin is a business speaker and photographer who has mission to reconnect business with the natural world - you should check out his website here for the wonderful pictures if nothing else.

Well this got me thinking, what makes someone pick up a business book like The Green Executive after a hard day's paddling in the open sea? Well the simple answer is that I packed the book full of stories.

When I started the book I didn't want to regurgitate the same old case studies over again, so I interviewed 18 senior managers/directors charged with transforming their business. These interviews took on a life of their own, so I included a transcript at the end of each chapter as a short intermission called "The View from the Front Line". I found the stories were inspirational - somehow we managed to duck their PR machines' blue pencil of death and got some really personal insights and anecdotes. Virtually all the feedback on the book - reviews and on Amazon - has lauded the interviews.

None of this is surprising - humankind has always revered the story. Very few of us would willingly wade through a book of stats, equations and mathematical proofs, but whole industries depend on stories, from the Take A Break style magazine through to blockbuster movies.

So how can you use storytelling in your green communications? In exactly the same way I used it in the book - sprinkle anecdotes and personal stories through your reports, websites and other publications. One of the interviewees from the book, Julie Parr of lawyers Muckle LLP, used a story of how one partner was taking waste paper away to use as horse bedding in their in house magazine. OK, it's not the most exciting thing they are doing if you are a sustainability geek like me, but for the rest of the world (the people we need to communicate with) it the story is far more engaging than a bar chart or a picture of hands cupping a sapling.

So go on, what's your story?

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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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20 April 2011

Are brands really bad for the planet?

I'm not a mainstream environmentalist for one very good reason - like any tribe, you need to sign up to a set of beliefs that are taken as gospel, but are often over-simplistic when you're dealing with the real world. One of these beliefs is "Brands are bad" - brands are a symbol of consumerism and consumerism is killing the planet.

Well, yes and no. If you look the average Joe or Joanne's carbon footprint it is dominated by the mundane - heating our homes, getting around, cooking, eating, lighting. With the exception of booze and soft drinks, these markets aren't dominated by brands - no-one buys mains gas from one company because it has a better brand - and it's all the same gas at the end of the day. You get on the train that's at the station, rather than waiting for your favourite brand - you might specify a train provider because it is more comfortable or has wifi, but not because of the brand. The choice of petrol for your car is usually made on price and convenience factors rather than Shell, BP or Esso (unless you are actively boycotting one).

But let's go onto consumer goods and look a what a brand is. Why do companies develop brands? Because they add intangible value to the products. That value has no carbon footprint - it is ephemeral. That intangible value is an aspect of human nature - we want stuff that makes us feel good whether it's a designer label or an extremely expensive bicycle.

From an environmental point of view, it is actually better for a consumer to spend £300 on a pair of designer jeans (and look after them) than blow the same amount in a cheap highstreet clothing store and chuck the clothes when they get the slightest bit of wear and tear. Likewise, a posh champagne has roughly the same carbon footprint as a bog standard bottle of cava (and certainly less than the equivalent bottles you could buy for the same money), yet the former is seen as consumerism and the latter, not. It doesn't make sense.

Branding can be a force for good. Many of the companies that are leading the way in going green are doing it to protect and enhance their brand. Marks & Spencer, Timberland and Apple spring to mind. Others like Body Shop, Patagonia and Natural Collection are brands which were founded with green/ethcis in mind. So never feel guilty about working for, developing or purchasing a big brand - there's nothing immoral about it. Just make it a green brand and watch that intangible value grow even higher!

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10 January 2011

Show, don't tell

There was an interesting story in the Daily Mail (yes, really) over the summer. Its science editor, a climate change sceptic, visited Greenland, saw the scale of the ice melt for himself, and there and then converted to a climate change "believer". To me, the interesting thing about this was that the conversion was just as irrational as his rejection of the scientific evidence in the first place. This part of Greenland could simply be experienced a localised bout of warmer weather, or it could be the result of a single warm year, yet it clearly left a deep and emotional impression on him.

My own change in attitude from armchair environmentalist to highly motivated man-on-a-mission came from a similar damascene moment - massive destruction in Arctic Russia by acid rain from a nickel smelter. I'd read all the stats, but it took the emotional experience of being there to tip the scales.

To change attitudes in an organisation, data will never be enough - you need to tap these emotions.

If you want to make a point about recycling waste, say, try demonstrating it instead of saying it - tip the bins or skips out in front of people and divide the contents into recyclables and residuals. If you want to improve the energy efficiency of a process, take people to a (safe) place where you can feel the heat losses on your faces. Run human interest stories in your green communications, persuade people to try cycling to work just one day a year, lead people on a river clean up. These experiences will last longer in people's memories and subconscious than any powerpoint slide.

As a million attendees of creative writing evening classes will tell you, the key rule is "show, don't tell."

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11 October 2010

Symbolism Matters

I'm very heartened by the news that President Obama is going to re-install solar panels on the White House, a whole quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan removed those put up by Jimmy Carter in 1979. Symbolism, yes, but symbolism matters. Remember PM David Cameron's husky hugging back in 2006? Or his somewhat bumpy attempt to install a domestic wind turbine a year later? I was cynical at the time, but these were core parts of Cameron's ultimately successful attempt to decontaminate the Conservative Party's brand and make it electable again. In fact, he could do with some more symbolism now to back up his claim that his will be the "greenest Government ever" - there is plenty of work going on in the background, but we could do with something more tangible to chew on.

Like politicians, green business leaders have got to be seen to walk the talk. The message must go out to all stakeholders, both within and without the organisation - we mean green business. Some of this effort will undoubtedly be symbolic in nature to represent the wider programme.

There are two types of green symbolism:

1. Positive symbolism: being seen to embrace the new;

2. Negative symbolism: being seen to reject the old.

You can't do 1 without doing 2. Having a Prius in your driveway is worthless as a symbol if it is overshadowed by a colossal SUV. These things matter.

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6 October 2010

Cost or opportunity?

There's a story in the Independent this week that upgrades to the UK's electricity grid will cost £32bn, part of an estimated £200bn that will be required to hit the country's climate change targets for 2020. The £32bn will add £6 per year to the average electricity bill, yet it is being portrayed as an obstacle or some great painful sacrifice.

Just £6 a head a year to make such a huge leap forwards in tackling climate change? Is that all? Given the risks of doing nothing, I'd say that was a bargain.

And just think, that's a £32-200bn clean tech market to deliver the transformation. Just when we need to build a greener, more robust economy to get us out of the current economic pickle.

What's not to like?

On the wider scale, this shows once again we have got to flip our attitudes from seeing the problems to seeing the opportunity. Optimism is a rare commodity in the environmental movement, but whether we are looking at one country's infrastructure or one company's environmental strategy, we have got to get much better at, as sausage manufacturers would say, "selling the sizzle."

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20 September 2010

The (Wrong?) Road

The other evening I watched The Road, the post-apocalyptic movie based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The plot involves the attempt by a father and son to escape an unnamed catastrophe which has killed off every living thing except people. Survivors have either turned cannibal, or, like the father and son, scavenge for tinned food amongst the wreckage of small town America and the dead forests of the surrounding countryside.

Not a bad film, but portraying such utter dystopia leaves me in two minds. The first thought is that it was a powerful reminder that we rely on the eco-system for all our essentials, one which we often forget as we in the West spend most of our time inside and increasingly on-line. If it goes we go. But this is balanced by the nagging thought that this kind of "it'll be our DOOM!" type message is misleading and off putting to the general populace. The earth will recover from climate change, but in its own time. The big question is whether society can continue to thrive in warming world.

You can see this problem in the slight repositioning of many of the climate change denial brigade. They seem to have invented something called 'catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)' which the rest of us apparently believe in. I assume the introduction of the word "catastrophic" is to give them wriggle room as the fundamental science of climate change stands up to the huge scrutiny put on it over the last year. We might have melting glaciers, disrupted weather patterns, floods, droughts and heatwaves - but if the result doesn't look like The Road then they'll claim it was all exaggerated (tell that to the people of the flooded Sind province of Pakistan).

It is becoming a cliché, but we really do need a more positive view of sustainability and the low carbon economy. I believe this vision needs to go further than the 'green jobs' that politicians fall back on. What about vibrant cities full of pedestrians, cyclists and urban greenery? What about people working from home, cutting crime in their neighbourhoods simply by being there, revitalising the local economy and getting to know their neighbours? What about holidays on high speed rail bringing back the romance of travel? What about being able to park outside your house because no-one needs a second car?

And for business? The same positive vision needs to be applied both inside and outside the business. Companies need to lead on this agenda and develop those products and services that are not just green in themselves, but that go further and help other people cut their emissions and improve their lives. I saw a TV ad for Hitachi at the weekend that showed the difference that their technologies - from high speed trains to data centres - could make to carbon emissions. It was great, positive stuff and no hand wringing or hair shirts in sight. That's the future I want.

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30 August 2010

Lighten Up, Pal!

Just over four years ago, I needed a catchy name for my new environmental/sustainability consultancy, so I, ahem, 'borrowed' the name from one session in a children's international conference I spoke at (I wasn't getting paid so, being a mercenary git, I had to steal something!). It's not a bad company name, but it does have a number of disadvatanges:

1. It is difficult to read out over the phone.

2. Just after I registered it and bought the stationery, the VC firm Terra Firma suddenly hit the headlines by buying out EMI - cue confusion at my end (I doubt they got many calls looking for an environmental review).

but more importantly,

3. It's a bit doom and gloom.

If you see any of my talks, I very rarely mention environmental damage - no pictures of melting glaciers or oil encrusted birds (a rare exception here). I am resolutely upbeat about green business and sustainability. I genuinely find it exciting to see an organisation making the right moves, rejecting business as usual, learning and innovating.

And this is the key rule of environmental communications, whether internal or external - make it fun. No-one wants to be beaten over the head with guilt or be lectured on how they're destroying the planet. And being human, if we don't want to hear something, we just switch off.

In practice, how do we do this? Well, for a start, get rid of all those annoying posters, all the pious 'hands cupping a sapling' pictures and any hint of sanctimony. This is a challenge, we're all in it together, so we might as well have some fun while we're doing it. Run competitions, use humour and make people feel that they can contribute.

I love the fact that Tesla's first electric car is a sports car. That's way cooler than a Prius. And cool will beat piety any day of the week - even a Bank Holiday Monday!

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26 January 2009

Weekly Tip #41: Avoid the cliches

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

Eco-clichés turn people off - particularly cynics. Personally I never want to see a picture of hands cupping a sapling ever again. Find a stronger brand for your green communications - and one with a spark of originality.

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12 January 2009

Weekly Tip #39: Watch your tone

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

Match the tone of your internal and external green communications to the culture of your business. If your's is a funky place to work, be fun and 'more stilettos than sandals', but if you are a traditional manufacturer in an engineering supply chain, be practical and technical. You'll find it easier to get others on board if you speak their language.

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21 November 2008

Yesterday @ LCIE Manchester

At yesterday's Low Carbon Innovation Exchange in Manchester I facilitated two sessions on staff engagement. Both sessions went really well, although like last month's event in Harrogate, there was a reluctance to move up the ladder of participation towards actually empowering staff to take action. The closest that participants had come to this was the use of suggestion schemes.

Most people started with simple 'switch it off' schemes. Using surprise tactics is increasingly popular - chocolate mysteriously appearing overnight on the keyboards of switched off computers with no explanation has been tried and tested. An interesting variation is an unexplained green sticker on 'off' computers and a red one on 'on' computers - it would take staff a few days to work out what was going on.

Other successful tactics included educating people about savings at home, providing cycle purchase schemes and holding one-off green fun events.

The groups concluded that effective communication requires a mix of channels (intranet, e-mail, newsletters and posters had been used) and careful understanding of culture and language. One multinational reported that their overseas HQ, obviously not understanding the sarcastic nature of the phrase in English, wanted to call their sustainability engagement programme "In Your Dreams"... they were quickly educated why a new name was required in the UK.

Interestingly there was a lot of grumbling about getting senior management to engage and show leadership on sustainability - an MD launching a sustainability campaign then choosing a gas guzzling company car was one example of not walking the walk. We got into discussing guerilla tactics to get things moving - mainly focussing on economic benefits of energy saving actions, or using the popularity of green schemes amongst staff to embarrass the higher echelons of the organisation.

A great event - the participative powerpoint-free environment leads to maximum learning and minimum boredom. I'm already looking forward to next year.

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