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10 February 2017

Are you a Sustainability egg, or a chicken?

I needed an example of user influence on a building's carbon emissions for my CIBSE talk on Tuesday night. I had a nagging feeling that the lofty goals of the BedZed zero-emission development in South London had been compromised by user behaviour and, after a bit of digging, found a study which suggested the difference between the highest energy users on site and the lowest was an incredible factor of 8. That's a colossal range given everybody has the same technology. And it's not just BedZed, the Western Harbour development in Malmo and the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg have both struggled to get residents to change their behaviour to match the ideal.

This goes for virtually any product – you can design washing powders to wash clothes at low temperature, but if consumers keep pushing the temperature selector on their washing machine upwards 'for luck', the benefit won't be felt. User behaviour is probably the ultimate challenge for the sustainability professional.

There are two responses to this:

1. Continue to design the neighbourhood/product/system to make green behaviour easier than business as usual. At one client we removed the bureaucracy around using their teleconferencing system and it went from gathering dust to being overwhelmed almost overnight;

2. Accept that your product is only one part of the larger jigsaw and you can only do what you can do. It's not P&G's fault that my washing machine doesn't have a 15°C setting, so I can't make the most of Ariel Excel Gel's low temperature performance, but there is now an incentive for the washing machine manufacturers to design one in.

I think the latter is very important – someone needs to jump first. We talk about 'chicken and egg' to describe apparently unsurmountable problems, but in evolutionary terms the egg did appear before the chicken. Are you going to be that egg?


Photo © Tom Chance used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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28 September 2016

Sustainability: Engineering in the Real World


Yesterday I was facilitating a workshop for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Durham University. The purpose was to find ways to further embed Sustainability issues (social, environmental and economic) into the syllabus. I entered the room with a touch of manflu and no little trepidation - academics can be a tough audience as they, rightly, have a culture of questioning everything.

Here's how I approached it to make sure I didn't lose the room:

  • I went straight into the first session without more than a 2 minute pre-amble. No pointless round of introductions to put everyone to sleep.
  • We started with a presentation by a client, Colin Thirlaway, global compliance manager for Stanley Black & Decker. Colin made a powerfully persuasive case that, as SBD's 20,000 product lines had to be designed for a sustainable economy, the engineers of the future will need plenty of appropriate skills and knowledge. In doing so, he killed off any doubt that this was an important subject. This made the rest of the workshop really easy.
  • Next we split into groups and asked why Sustainability should be in the syllabus. This doubled down on the message that it was a critical subject – and the classic Green Jujitsu technique of getting delegates to sell sustainability to themselves.
  • The following segments followed up the "Why?" with "What topics are required?", "Where in the syllabus?" and "How should Sustainability be presented?". For each question, delegates had to write their own ideas on Post-Its before they came together. This stops any individual dominating any group and captures the full gamut of thoughts.

As usual, it went swimmingly, although my brain got a little fugged as the Lemsip wore off towards the end. Now I've just got to write it all up...


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29 June 2016

Urban Sustainability in Walthamstow

miniholland orchard

I'm down in North East London for a couple of days learning about the 'mini-Holland' project in Walthamstow – a substantial investment in making suburban streets cycle/walking/people friendly. I'm here with my local councillor hat on, but I thought some of you would be interested in both the design concepts and some of the change management 'issues'.

You see, the mini-Holland projects have kicked off some pretty virulent opposition, including organised demonstrations. Even when I tweeted I was on my way to see the project, I got two negative replies saying the changes had caused traffic chaos while doing nothing to increase cycling, with only one person being positive. So progress has been fairly gnarly despite the Council's extensive attempts at consultation and co-design.

play bollardsFor many people, me included, it is hard to see who would prefer to have thousands of cars rat-running through their street every day rather than a mini-orchard and wildflowers - see pic above. The project involves some really lovely design touches, such as the bollards/kids' obstacle course hybrid shown right and lots of other beautification.

While some of those who opposed changes have changed their minds, many others, as we have seen, have stuck to their guns. Unfortunately, the project manager could offer no magic wand to deal with this, other than a tin hat, and one of the team confided to us that he probably would turn down a similar project role in the future as it had been so tough.

This is a real shame as we could see benefits just pedalling around – the traffic restricted shopping streets were clearly much more vibrant than those with traffic. The dad cycling past with his 6 year old son on the roadway was highly symbolic of a better future. As with many elements of sustainability, we know where we need to be, but getting there is the challenge.


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10 June 2016

The perversity of low mileage...


Gnnyuh. I'm just off the phone to our garage. Our car battery has run flat a couple of times in the last few months, but the mechanics can't find a drain. They've concluded that because we drive so little, the battery isn't getting enough charging time between start up and shut down sequences. Yes, our mileage is 'too low' and they're recommending we work some longer journeys into our routine.

This is what we call a perverse incentive. It encourages 'bad' behaviour and penalises 'good'. You will find many examples in your organisation, too. The best way to winkle them out is get a group of colleagues together and let them grumble!

It's also a poor example of design. Our need for an urban bus that will take 3 or 4 child seats (ruling out car clubs on practical grounds) several times a week with the occasional family trip, but not for regular commuting, can't be unique.

The new Tesla Model X is a 7 seater, and if they'd like to send one on permanent trial...


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22 June 2015

Making Sustainability the Easy Path to Take


I loved this picture when I saw it on LinkedIn last week (I don't know who to credit it to, I'm afraid). It sums up for me why many sustainability efforts fail – because they expect every member of the public/employee/consumer to go out of their way for sustainability.

Green Jujitsu understands that people aren't stupid, but most are busy, and they'll always take a shortcut. Our challenge is to make sustainability the shortcut and not the long way around.


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12 June 2015

Staying one step ahead of legislation

Baltic view

Last Friday saw the 11th meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group – the small group of sustainability managers from large organisations I facilitate. We were back at the site of the very first meeting, the Baltic Art Gallery in Gateshead with its fabulous views over the Tyne.

The topic was legislation and, in particular, what we can learn from wrestling with current legislation to anticipate the next wave. The Group focussed on three areas of legislation – Energy/Carbon, Supply Chain and Product Design. Here's a selection of the 60+ 'take home' points arising:

  • A compliance mindset means always playing catch up;
  • Need an early warning system to identify and screen forthcoming legislation;
  • Spending time to understand the true scope and depth of the requirements is a very worthwhile investment;
  • Use legislation to stimulate innovation;
  • Always assume legislation will tighten;
  • Suppliers may say ‘no’ if they are not directly obligated;
  • You can sometimes sell compliance to customers as added-value by de-risking their compliance;
  • Energy/carbon biggest opportunity for automating data collection;
  • Purchase plant, fleet and equipment on through life costing basis;
  • Care needs to be taken with data – trends may be due to changing collection process;
  • Energy management software needs to work for the business and not the other way around – take care with choice of vendor;
  • Reinvest a % of savings to generate a snowball effect;
  • Investment appraisal needs to be able to capture energy/carbon costs.
  • Knowing what’s actually in your product is a real challenge, yet legislation makes it your responsibility;
  • Further down the supply chain the harder it is to check, yet the bigger the risk to reputation;
  • Categorise suppliers to identify risks: strategic/tactical, single/replaceable, and by geography;
  • Giving priority to sustainable suppliers means unsustainable suppliers will lose market share ie you can transform the market with purchasing decisions;
  • LCA heavily dependent on assumptions and must be used with care;
  • Watch-list of chemicals/components is growing fast;
  • Designing out problematic materials is the best solution – and can provide extra value to customers.

As always it was the discussion that got us to these conclusions which gave the most value. This discussion continued over lunch in the fabulous SIX rooftop restaurant – 'no dreary buffets' is one of the three rules of the Group!


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3 October 2014

How Is ISO14001 Changing? Interview with Marek Bidwell

In this very special edition of Ask Gareth, I get to ask the questions! I have been asked about the forthcoming changes to ISO14001, and to cover up my ignorance, I invited my friend, colleague and ISO-geek Marek Bidwell to outline what will happen and when.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!


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17 June 2013

Who has the power to green the supply chain?

Greening the Supply Chain Constraints

One of the issues we explored in our recent Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on supply chains was who in the organisation has the power to drive or constrain the greening of the supply chain. I've been developing that line of thinking since for an exciting new project (watch this space), and I've come up with a hierarchy of constraints that you can see above.

  • Trying to green the supply chain by simply choosing the greenest option available is the easiest place to start, but it will only ever lead to incremental improvements.
  • By setting a procurement policy which, say excludes certain substances or certain suppliers, you will have more influence, but you are still constrained by the way the rest of the organisation operates as that is where demand comes from.
  • The design of operations - whether that's manufacturing, logistics or even office processes - will determine which materials you need and in what quantities.
  • Above that, the actual design of your product and service will drive operations and the levels below. Will this product be designed to be made out of recycled materials? Does it require rare earth metals?
  • The business model is the next influential - are you going to produce a physical product at all or a digital product or a product service system where you lease rather than sell?
  • And overarching everything else is your corporate philosophy - are you prepared to invest in the supply chain you need? Do you want to be a pioneer of the circular economy? Or collaborative consumption? Are you going to use your buying power to effect change on a transformational level?

Of course in practice, the boundaries blur and they may not all apply to all organisations. But the overall principle is that the higher in the hierarchy you effect change, the bigger the impact on your supply chain footprint.



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10 June 2013

Fear of a Green Planet II

screamI was fascinated to read that when BMW wanted to develop its new electric car range, they set up an arms length division to prevent "sabotage". Uwe Dreher, head of marketing for the car, told the Guardian,:

"What would have happened is when technical development has been concentrated for 40 to 50 years on the internal combustion engine, it gives everyone security. It's a human condition to be afraid when people face new things and have no experience out of their comfort zone.

So we had to create a new platform. We got the power from the board and they told us to come to them if we were having problems, if people in the business wanted to kill it. It has been sitting aside as a separate structure in the company to protect it."

I heard this concern previously from GlaxoSmithKline when I interviewed their then Vice President of Sustainability, Jim Hagan for The Green Executive:

We have a huge amount of sunk cost in existing technologies – not just the capital sunk cost in physical plant, but also the personal sunk cost – many people in the organization have developed expertise in the technologies that define the company. If we move into innovative approaches, their expertise may no longer be useful and may become obsolete which can make people anxious.

So fear is clearly a real problem if two huge but different manufacturers have identified it as a major risk. While BMW's approach will work in product development in the short term, it is a bolt-on solution that won't serve to align the whole company to sustainability - unless they start sacking the "traditional minded" employees en masse - hardly ethical and a great loss of talent. In practice I've seen quite a few such arms-length divisions either get closed down or sold off in the name of focus, usually after a change in leadership.

The Green Jujitsu approach would be to tap into the engineering mindset at the company and train up the existing engineers in EV technology and insert them into the emerging EV teams. A mixture of peer pressure and technical curiosity is likely to bring most people along. Above this, clear leadership is required to set the overall direction of travel with the ultimate threat of "this way or the highway".

But fundamentally, sustainability must be centre stage in the business, not lurking in the wings. That's where you get stage fright.


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14 November 2012

Your Waste Problem is NOT In Your Skips

I spent another thoroughly enjoyable day yesterday delivering waste awareness sessions for the employees of one of our clients. We used my waste template to develop a simple model of the production process, identify waste streams and then apply ‘The Toddler Test’ - keep asking ‘Why?’ until you can't answer – to trace those waste streams back to source.

Here are some of the results (translated into generic terms and which you will hear in any manufacturer):

  • The quality of suppliers' components is impacting on our production process and leads to waste.
  • Our procurement people are making false economies – bulk buying supplies with short shelf lives which end up getting binned before they are used.
  • If we purchased components in the dimensions we need, it would save us money on purchasing, the cutting process and waste disposal.
  • Our process needs a redesign to take waste into consideration.
  • Our product designs need to take waste into consideration.

You will notice that all of these root causes are some distance (in organisational and, often, geographical terms) from those responsible for filling and emptying skips. We need to see the material in those skips as a symptom of a deeper problem, and not as the problem itself.

Which takes us back to the basic principle that everybody in an organisation - designers, production engineers, buyers etc - needs to understand the impact their job role has on sustainability.


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18 January 2012

Enabling your customers to be more sustainable pt2

The BusinessGreen webcast on customer behaviour went really well on Monday. The recorded version will be online soon and I'll put the link in the comments below. I'm not going to summarise the sessions in detail here as you will be able to watch it, but instead I'll pull out some key messages from the participants.

Sophie Flak of hotel group Accor (Sofitel, Novotel, Formule1) emphasised the need to use facts rather than following the crowd or to "think twice before acting" as she put it.

Carmel McQuaid of Marks & Spencer emphasised that the green message must be fully integrated into mainstream marketing. So M&S uses the same models (Danii, Twiggy et al) for their green campaigns as their normal advertising - and they sync their "clear out days" to promote the recycling of clothes with their seasonal changes in stock.

My main point was to put yourself in the customers shoes. You need to make green behaviour as frictionless as possible while adding friction to the less green behaviour - exactly the same principle to promote green behaviour within your organisation.

We got some great questions, too.

One was about the message you use. All the panellists agreed that preaching was counterproductive. I suggested that humour was a good option, such as replacing the po-faced "Consider the environment before printing this e-mail" with a wittier version like "Printing this e-mail will make Al Gore cry."

Another was along the lines of "is greening products enough or do we not need a different type of economy?" My response was that it was already happening in certain areas - music, books, movies where people were increasingly buying the service rather than the equivalent physical artefact, but that in others it was difficult as  many people see a product such as a car as a sign of status - which is why many car clubs are targetting the second car rather than the first one.

The most worrying was about the 'cost downside' of doing all this. I was quite blunt and pointed out that study after study had shown that companies who took sustainability seriously were doing better in the downturn than average (acknowledging that cause and effect weren't completely clear).

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16 January 2012

Enabling your customers to be more sustainable pt1

I'm writing this on the East Coast Mainline, charging across the frozen fields of eastern England as the sun casts various tints of orange across the monochrome landscape. I'm on my way down to the bright lights of London to take part on a webinar about engaging customers on how to use your products and services in a greener way. The event is organised by, sponsored by Accor and also includes Marks & Spencer, so I'm in pretty good company.

If you read this in time, you can still sign up here - I'll post a summary on Wednesday for all those who missed it!

Just to give some background - customer engagement is one of the three big challenges for green business I identified back in December. Effectively all those green collar jobs everyone hopes says will emerge from the green economy will be delivering products and services which allow others to go greener. This is the top level of the business case model in my book, the Green Executive. So why is this such a big issue?

Well look at the diagram below (taken from The Green Executive) which shows lifecycle carbon emissions for a variety of generic products - computer, car, food and washing powder - which:

Food is the only common example I could find where the emissions from the use phase (in this case cooking at home) don't dominate the lifecycle. In the case of food this is because of the huge amount of energy required for fertiliser, pesticides and irrigation. But for the other three, the biggest element of the emissions is in the hands of the user.

The washing powder data above came from Procter & Gamble and was the evidence that drove them to create Ariel Excel Gel which allows washing at 15°C - a massive potential improvement in lifecycle emissions. But that improvement hinges on the consumer being able/wanting to wash at that temperature. First up, my A+ rated washing machine doesn't have a 15°C setting and secondly, (on the rare occasions I put a wash on) I'm forever turning the dial from 40°C down to 30°C - the fairies turn it back up when I turn my back. Marks & Spencer may have run a massive "Wash at 30°C" campaign on their clothes, but there is a residual feeling amongst many consumers that warmer = cleaner.

So you can (and must) enable greener behaviour, you can (and must) inform the consumer/customer of the benefits, but that's often not enough to actually change their behaviour. We'll look at that in part 2.

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11 January 2012

Putting the customer first

There's disappointing news from the world of low emission vehicles (LEVs) - while sales of all cars were up 10% last year in the US, alternatively fuelled vehicles (incl hybrids) only rose 2.3%. In the UK, however, road fuel sales were down. This broadly suggests that people are simply driving less rather than investing a premium in a vehicle which would cost less to run overall. But it may also be fear of the new - will that electric car run out of charge half way down the M1?

The relationship between green products of any type and consumers has always been complicated - for example organic food dominates baby food sales but not 'adult food' - we're happy to eat cheap crap ourselves but won't feed it to our kids. There are many reasons for consumers being lukewarm on green products:

  • Habit/comfort zone
  • Costs - perceived or otherwise
  • Perceived low quality
  • Lack of understanding/fear that a new system will be complicated

I've argued for a long time that it is retail which is acting as a gatekeeper for fast moving consumer goods. Their huge buying power can both drive innovation, ensure quality and keep costs reasonable. The consumer can then trust the retailer to get it right on their behalf.

But what for other sectors? The golden rule is to put yourself in your customers' shoes. If you are aiming for a green niche then you can compromise on performance or price for a very green product. However if you want to go mainstream, you must compete on performance, price and planet.

Of course the ultimate goal is a green product that people deeply desire. MP3s and e-Books aren't marketed as green, but they are - and they sell in their millions. It may be that the auto industry needs to go through another couple of iterations before they hit that level of customer pull for LEVs - after all one technology has dominated the industry for 120 years and that it take some shifting.


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26 August 2011

Michael Pawlyn on Biomimicry

I really like this TED talk by Michael Pawlyn - it's about the application of biomimicry principles to architecture, waste management and food systems. I love the scale of the ambition and the smart thinking - definitiely worth checking out.

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5 August 2011

Toxic Legacies

My first paid "green" job was researching techniques for the eco-design of "large made to order products" such as oil platforms, ships and process plant - anything very large and one-off. One of my philosophical ideas was to extend the tradition cradle-grave life cycle for such products to include a post-decommissioning "legacy" phase. The purpose was to encourage the designers, owners and operators of such facilities to think beyond the act of dismantling and consider long term residual issues. I was very pleased with this idea, believing it would encapsulate the sustainability idea of intergenerational equity, but after getting it published in the Journal of Engineering Design and including it in my MPhil thesis, it singularly failed to set the eco-design world on fire. One of my colleagues at the time uncharitably said it reminded her of musty old ladies.

So it was with some interest then that I read about Shell having its arm bent by the UN to contribute to the clean up of Ogoniland in Nigeria despite having ceased operations there in 1993. This is exactly the kind of issue that I wanted to encapsulate in my legacy idea. Designers would be challenged to design out such legacy problems on the drawing board, treating them with the same priority as issues in the traditional life cycle. Maybe I should resurrect the idea...

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4 March 2011

The Power of Good Design

It has been said that design is the engine room of good environmental practice and I couldn't agree more.

  • Got an inefficient building? Design a new one, or design a brilliant retrofit.
  • Got a problem with a toxic material in your manufacturing process? Design the need for it out of your product.
  • Got a problem in your supply chain? Either design that part of your supply chain out of your product, or re-design the supply chain itself.

When I say 'design' here, it doesn't just mean a expensively bespectacled 'creative' staring at a blank sheet of paper on a drawing board. What you might be redesigning is the way you approach problems, the tactics you use and the business environment you work in. Anyone can redesign, and the best person to ask is... everyone. Get creative juices running throughout your organisation and its stakeholders and you might just be surprised what new designs you end up with.

What are you going to redesign next?

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6 September 2010

What's the ultimate green product?

I started my professional sustainability career in eco-design - making the world greener from the drawing board. This remains the greatest opportunity for a business to go green as the designer has a huge amount of control over the whole lifecycle of the product from materials extraction right through to disposal.

During my two and a bit year investigation into eco-design techniques, I became fascinated by the Russian Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or TRIZ to give it its Russian acronym. The concept behind TRIZ is that innovation does not come from sudden flashes of genius, but through the application of a number of fundamental principles. These can either be stumbled upon, or, by following TRIZ, worked through methodically until one generic solution fits the particular case. But what got me really excited about TRIZ was the concept of the ideal final result:

The ideal final result delivers the required function while consuming no resources.

Which would, by definition be the ultimate green product, as the product has been reduced to pure wieghtless function. Obviously this is impossible - even telling a joke requires some resources - but to me it is one of those intellectual concepts that provokes ambition and step changes. It is certainly behind the whole idea of servicisation - delivering the required function (eg travel via public transport and/or a car club) rather than a product (owning a car) and the whole digitisation movement (eg replacing travel with teleconferencing, or replacing CDs with MP3 downloads).

Unfortunately I never did secure the funding to develop a 'Green TRIZ' research project, but it would have been fascinating to either filter or generate a set of fundamental green design principles to be applied to get as close as possible to that ideal final result.

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26 March 2010

Really Stupid Designs

You don't have to look far to see plenty of examples of designs that are really stupid from an ecological point of view. Take the humble hand-drier, here are some incredibly inept installations I have come across in recent years:

1. The drier being so close to the toilet door that you couldn't either enter or leave the room without setting it off, unless you were a contortionist. Result - the heater and fan motor kick in three times per visit. Good planning.
2. On a train, in one of these new-fangled all-in-one sink systems, I managed to get the tap and the drier to operate at the same time, so the latter was trying to dry a stream of water. Brilliant.
3. In a combined towel dispenser/drier/bin, you couldn't put a used paper towel in the bin without triggering the drier, drying your already dry hands. Genius.
I'm sure you could think of many more examples in other applications (post them in the comments if you do). We sometimes get caught up in a muddle trying to develop breakthrough new green products, but I can't help thinking there's a lot to be gained by simply eliminating really stupid design.

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12 December 2007

RSC calls for more green product development

While most environmentalists are focussing on the big issue du jour, climate change and the talks in Bali, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has flagged up the fact that we still need to take care on more parochial issues such as not poisoning our water supply. The study takes in a wide range of pollutants, although the PR has focussed on personal hygiene products to stay media friendly (when did you last see the RSC quoted in the Mirror?).

One of the recommendations of the report is for more eco-design of products to eradicate the problem in the first place. I love the following quote from Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart:

"we've got to take the filters out of the pipes and put them where they belong - in the designers' minds"

Wise words - if we don't use such materials in the first place, it simplifies everything that goes after. It is particularly pertinent for dissipative products such as cosmetics, cleaning products and personal hygiene products as these, by definition, are left to the environment to deal with.

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25 October 2007


Those free eco-design sessions in Gateshead are today & tomorrow.

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