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30 March 2015

Marks & Spencer's Living Wall Comes to Life

mands green wall
It was my forty-mmmth birthday yesterday and I had a lovely day – breakfast in bed, pub lunch, birdwatching (yellow hammer, willow tit, water rail the highlights), a beer in the sun and dinner. But an completely unexpected treat on the way home was seeing the newly installed 'living wall' at Marks & Spencer lit up in all its glory.

The wall is 167 square metres, constructed from nearly 16,000 individual plants, and is designed to bring birds and insects into the centre of Newcastle. I'm sure the bees in the hives on the roof of Fenwicks just down Northumberland Street will be highly appreciative.

And if you think this is just green bling, the store is getting a massive sustainable energy makeover with intelligent door sensors and a system to use waste heat from refrigeration internally.

Great to see M&S continuing to forge the path on these issues – and even better that its on my doorstep!


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19 May 2014

Go Big or Go Home

I get a little frustrated with the obsession with the little stuff. People fretting over the best time of day to charge their mobile phone, or, like Dilbert, whether polystyrene or paper cups are better, or calling for a ban on plastic bags. Some of this navel gazing gives counter-intuitive results like when people buy a smoothie rather than bottled water when the latter has a lower carbon footprint, but social stigma forces their hand.

This is all displacement activity and won't make a damn difference to the state of the planet.

If you are serious about cutting your personal impact, then insulate your loft, cycle/walk to work and holiday at home. If you are serious about the impacts of your organisation, then identify the big impacts and tackle them. P&G famously did this with Ariel Excel Gel where their biggest impact by far was heating water in washing machines, so they developed a low temperature washing product.

We only have a certain amount of time, energy and goodwill to act. Wasting that limited resource on activity for activity's sake is a crying shame.


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7 November 2011

Is this greenwash? You decide...

A week or so ago my other half proudly presented me with a new kettle. "Look!" she said "It's an eco-friendly one!" And sure enough it was slathered in claims it would save 66% energy.

"Mmm", I thought, putting on my electrical engineer's hat (which is admittedly a bit dusty), "A heating element is 100% efficient, the heat capacity of water is constant, the heating time is so quick you won't get significant losses through the sides, so what could possibly be 66% more efficient?"

The answer is, with a flat element and a gauge that lets you see if you have a single cup of water inside, you can save energy by only boiling the amount if water you need. When I explained this to her, she felt she had been conned. We ended up having a long conversation about greenwash.

Here's the evidence as I see it:

For the prosecution:

  • An intelligent, but busy person (she has a PhD and two small kids) assumed that the kettle itself was 66% more efficient, because she's not enough of a green geek to pore over the details;
  • The savings are almost entirely dependent on the user (and the user frequently making single cups of tea/coffee);
  • The kettle hasn't changed much - probably the most significant thing was the sticker on it about energy - now gone;
  • As flat element kettles are getting more common, anyone could measure out a cup of water. Even with a traditional element kettle, you can use less water with a bit of care.

For the defence:

  • The labels clearly said that the savings would be down to you being able to use less water;
  • The nature of a kettle is such that the amount of water is the key factor in energy consumption;
  • Philips are bringing the water factor to the attention of the user;
  • The 66% figure came from a DEFRA study, so has third party validation.

So, you, the jury, what verdict would you give? Guilty, or not guilty?

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3 May 2011

Worried about Peak Oil? You might be 5 years too late.

In the last week, UK newspapers have been dominated by two pieces of news - the Royal Wedding and the death of Bin Laden - both picked over in meticulous detail plumped out with the filler that the press adds to abide to its 'bigger story => more ink' rule. As a result of all that attention, another much more important, if less sensational, story has been largely missed. The chief economist at the International Energy Agency told Australian TV last Thursday that we hit Peak Oil back in 2006 (source Irish Times).

Peak oil, for those who don't know, is when the maximum amount of oil is being extracted. After the peak, oil production generally declines quickly (following the bell shaped Hubbert Curve), pushing prices up, particularly if demand keeps rising. The impact of this cannot be understated. Our entire modern economy is predicated on oil being cheap. If oil prices rise, so do the prices commodities like plastics, metals and food, never mind the price of petrol at the pump. At a time the world is recovering from a massive financial jolt, this could hurt. A lot.

Peak oil will drive change in a way that a less tangible threat like climate change cannot. Soaring prices will push energy efficiency and low carbon energy production to the fore. Saudi Arabia is reported to have recently invested $100bn in low carbon energy technologies (source FastCompany) - a nation built on oil, now looking to the sun. Maybe the rest of us - society, governments and industry - should take heed.

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14 April 2011

Green Business Webinar #4: Good Housekeeping

The fourth of our Green Business Webinars will be held on 4 May at 14:00 GMT. The hour long session will cover everything you need to know to green your organisation internally:

  • Quick wins for different types of business;
  • Aligning processes to sustainability;
  • Housekeeping tools: auditing, balances, group work, brainstorming;
  • Financing green projects.

The webinar costs £45.00 + VAT per person - use the button below to pay by card or Paypal. Contact us to make a BACS payment.


This is just one in our series of 10 webinars - you can see the full list and terms and conditions here. All ten cost £330 + VAT - reserve your seat using the button below:

Here's what participants say:

"Gareth's webinars are smart, punchy and thought provoking. His approach shows how sustainability is about achieving commercial advantage and not simply an altruistic gesture. Highly recommended." Graeme Mills, GPM Network Ltd.

"[The webinars] are great value and I would recommend them to both CSR professionals and SME owners." Louise Bateman, GreenWise

"I consider this a must for organisations looking for practical help in improving their sustainability performance." Ted Shann, Wipro

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11 April 2011

The Oil Conundrum? The Answer Is Easy.

While I've been on holiday, oil prices have continued to rise - now over $125 a barrel and heading fast for its previous pre-global crash record of $147. What I find bizarre is the whole reactive stance in the press - "Oh, no! The economy is gonna crash!" - as if there is nothing that can be done.

Let's make it very simple for the hard of learning:

Energy bill = cost of 1 unit of energy x consumption

So there are two things we can all do:

1. Switch to a cheaper form of energy - not easy yet, but the rate things are going, renewables will soon be competitive with fossil fuels with the costs of the former falling and the latter rising, or,

2. Cut consumption. I have never visited a factory, an office or a home where I can't spy a couple of quick fixes within ten minutes. Proper energy efficiency takes longer, and possibly some investment - but huge savings can be made and, unlike redundancies, energy efficiency can improve the business rather than weaken it.

So why is nothing done on energy efficiency? Everyone likes blaming politicians, but Government intervention on energy efficiency has a checkered history - either broad sweeps like 55mph speed limits in the US, or advertising campaigns of doubtful impact. Only on social issues like fuel poverty do Governments really get traction and deliver results.

Captains of industry are meant to be able to see which way the world is going and adapt swiftly - but they often get this one wrong - witness how a couple of years ago the US motor industry didn't react quickly enough to a public looking for more efficient vehicles and kept churning out SUVs. More and more are opening their eyes, but the evidence is that many at the top do not see this as a strategic business issue and keep trying to 'manage' it.

And of course all of us as consumers can do our bit whether it is choosing a more efficient car (or a bicycle!), putting an extra layer of insulation in the loft or switching stuff off when it isn't needed.

We're all a little too wedded to cheap energy. And as Bob Dylan once said, back when he was still political, a change is gonna come. We can either do something about it or put our heads in the sand. The choice is ours.

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7 February 2011

Heat from dead people? Why not?

Here is a topic that is getting me fired up. Redditch Council will decide tonight whether to approve a scheme to capture waste heat from its crematorium to heat its swimming pool. The Unison union is dead against the scheme, saying it is "insulting and insensitive".

What's their problem?

People die, get cremated, heat is generated, why not use it?

We lose loads of heat to the atmosphere that could be put to good use else - in fact the amount of waste heat from our power stations is roughly enough to heat every home in the country. Every refrigeration unit, chiller and air compressor pumps hot air out into the atmosphere - this can easily be captured and turned into hot water, saving loads of energy. So why not a crematorium? And, the swimming pool is a great use for the heat, too, with a big, year round heat requirement.

I heard the Unison guy on the radio a couple of weeks ago, unable to convince anyone that there was a problem. What a bunch of deadbeats - the scheme has cross party support in the council and approval of 85% of the locals. So why try to kill it off?

I hope Redditch Council will put this squeamish nonsense to rest and vote for this superb idea.

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12 January 2011

Why doesn't energy efficiency happen?

Today's blog is inspired by two tweets last night from Mel Starrs who writes the Elemental blog on green building issues:

Energy efficiency *should* be no-brainer. Businesses acting in self interest (cheaper bills) are also acting in interest of society (co2)

So why doesn't it happen? Are the incentives not great enough? Would carbon taxing incentivise or create regulations to be circumvented?

So why doesn't it happen? Here are some reasons:

  • For many organisations, energy/carbon costs are still low relative to, say, the pay roll. This is changing as costs increase;
  • A misalignment of responsibility and authority - most environmental managers have lots of responsibility and precious little authority. If it is operations/site managers who have the authority to change things then it is they who must be given responsibility;
  • Wishful thinking - "We've appointed energy champions. Job done." An extreme form of the the above;
  • A lack of accountability - if you want to draw someone's attention to something, give them a target to hit and hold them to it;
  • Many organisations have no control over the management of their buildings - particularly offices. They pay the bills, but the management company operates the boiler;
  • Sloppy company culture - machines left on, vehicles used for the supermarket run, unnecessary business travel;
  • A lack of empowerment - "It's more than my job's worth to turn that off."
  • Ignorance - "If I whack up the thermostat, the office will warm more quickly."
  • Inertia - "we've always done it like that", "That sound? That's always there. No, we don't check our compressed air system for leaks. Should we?" etc

Very rarely is the real reason money. Northern Foods have saved several million a year in energy and waste costs and they say 60-70% of it was achieved through behavioural change. I always say the true barrier to sustainability is about 6 inches wide - the space between our ears. Most of the problems and solutions can be found there.

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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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9 June 2010

Ask the bloomin' question!

I'm shooting down the East Coast Line for tomorrow's Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange in London Olympia. The drizzly weather means I'll be spending less time gazing out the window and more time working on book #2, The Green Executive. But I have been mulling on the event I spoke at yesterday hosted by ISPE (which is one of those acronyms that used to mean something but now just is, but it's the professional body for pharma industry engineers).

Engineers are a tough audience - I'm an engineer, so I can say that. Not because they heckle, but because they don't. They don't ask questions or challenge you in the same way as say, environmentalists, politicos, marketing people etc, etc. The other talks at the event were heavy on the engineering, so I decided to be provocative and challenge the audience that their focus on energy efficiency, returns on investment, value engineering etc, were holding their companies back from sustainable innovation and thus profit - actually I went further than that and accused them of murdering Rachel Weisz (somebody left at that point, but I think it was for unrelated reasons). I got nods, chuckles, smiles, some good feedback afterwards and even an approving tweet, but only one question. One. And that question was a technical point about how waste legislation can impact on industrial symbiosis - good question, but it didn't explore or challenge any of my main themes.

Questions are essential to the way we deliver on the environment. Imagine if BP or the US Government had challenged the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon which said the risk of spillage was negligible and the impact would be small if it did happen? No, there were lots of figures produced, so they must be right. Likewise my engineering audience were totally focussed on the how and not the why. One of the earlier speakers was asked whether energy efficiency improvements were dependent on the chemistry being undertaken - again a good point - but no-one went on to the logical next step - whether we should be changing that chemistry to deliver the energy efficiency rather than the  other way round.Engineers are essential to a sustainable future and we must start asking the questions that matter.

I like the idea of The Toddler Test - keep asking 'why' until the question cannot be answered. It might be annoying, but you won't innovate if you don't challenge the status quo - as Einstein said "we won't solve problems with the kind of thinking that created them."

Tomorrow, I'm chairing a panel session on staff engagement with some really great panellists. My biggest worry? That no-one will want to ask them a question...

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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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27 July 2009

Engineering the Future

I'm a member of the Institute of Engineering & Technology - back when I was appointed a member it was the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE). These engineering institutes have been around for a long time and they're very prestigious - you can't just turn up and pay your fees, you have to demonstrate a wide range of competencies gained through structured training, fulfil professional criteria and undergo a tough interview.

I joined as a student/graduate member during my sandwich course and later became an associate member. When I was deciding whether to apply for full membership, I had just completed 3 years in the environment/sustainability field and I was wondering if it was really for me. Just at that time, the IEE created the "Engineering for a Sustainable Future" network, so I thought "Yes! This is my spiritual home". But what a furore erupted in the letters page of the monthly news! The term "political correctness" featured heavily - "it is not the role of the engineer to get involved in a political agenda, harumph, grumble etc". One letter even blamed climate change on wind turbines slowing the prevailing winds, I kid you not.

What a difference eight years makes! The IET's journal now features a clutch of sustainability news stories and articles every issue and every third or fourth issue seems to be a special on some aspect of the field - the last but one being on "fuels for the future". And of course they should. Look at the issues - renewable energy systems, energy storage, grid connections, energy efficiency, industrial control systems, replacing goods with data, future fuels, intelligent grids, monitoring systems (including smart meters), building design, vehicle design, lightweight materials - the list is endless. Engineers are at the core of sustainability and they now see it as an exciting, fast moving and cutting edge ride to get on.

So well done to the IEE/IET for facing down the old duffers - onwards and upwards!

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16 June 2009

Free: 101 Carbon-busting Tips

Now available from the resources page.

You can't say I don't spoil you...

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27 May 2009

Some Ideas to Chu On...

While the last year has seen Barack Obama hogging the limelight of US politics, his new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, has been emerging as a refreshingly honest and practical voice to combat climate change. Unlike most politicos in his position, Chu is more concerned with results than process.

His calls for flat roofs to be painted white (to reflect more solar energy back into space without contributing to climate change), his embracing of ideas such as 'negawatts' - energy you don't use, and his energetic participation in bike-to-work day have really endeared him to me, but green groups are not so sure. He has been attacked for changing his mind on permitting coal fired powerstations and has slashed funding for the hydrogen economy. His focus instead has been on energy efficiency and biofuels.

But his biggest challenge will be to win over his fellow US politicians in Congress - resistance to carbon reductions is fierce and entrenched, with Rep Joe Barton declaring recently "Carbon dioxide is natural - you can't regulate God". Quite.

Good luck to him!

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16 December 2008

Weekly Tip #38: Motors

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

Motors are responsible for a 64% of industrial electricity demand (source Carbon Trust) so they should form a key priority of any manufacturers' energy efficiency campaign:

  • Implement an upgrade plan for motors, and always buy the most efficient model as any additional cost will be paid back very quickly in most cases.
  • Install Variable Speed Drive motors where appropriate eg rather than constantly pumping a fluid against a valve.

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15 August 2008

Terra Infirma saves companies £175k each

Until March, Terra Infirma carried out environmental healthchecks on behalf of Envirowise, looking at waste, water and energy. We've just been reviewing the files of the two dozen or so visits we carried out under this scheme - in sectors as diverse as steel stockholding, pharmaceuticals and catering - and the average savings were a whopping £175 000pa.

Imagine what that means to a medium sized manufacturing company in these tight financial times - they could keep 4 members of staff on for that money, making them even more competitive as things start to pick up. Makes you think, doesn't it?

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13 August 2008

Amory Lovins on energy efficiency and oil

I love these TED talks and found this one by US Energy Guru, Amory Lovins on energy efficiency and oil. It claims to be three and a half years old, but the Wall-E reference would suggest it was much more recent.

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14 July 2008

Weekly Tip #22: How many of your staff know how a thermostat works?

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

If you're reading this, you probably know that a room thermostat sets the target temperature for a room and that turning it up doesn't heat the room any quicker. But do your staff know this? I bet they don't - teach 'em!

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4 July 2008

Heath Robinson would love to be an energy auditor

Outside my office window, a team of builders is working on an eco-house. They are running a petrol generator to produce power for an electric cement mixer. That little system is converting chemical energy into rotary energy into electrical energy into rotary energy. That's at least two conversions (and losses) that don't need to be there.

Years ago I walked into a meeting room where the radiator and air-conditioning unit (installed one above the other) were blazing away - one producing hot air from hot water from gas (and electricity to pump it) and the other trying to cancel that out with cool air from electricity from gas/coal/nuclear. I switched both off and the temperature was just fine.

I've been in food companies where the cool rooms were next to the ovens. I've seen many examples of air compressors sucking their own heat into their 'cool' air intake. Stories abound of air conditioning intakes being downwind of hot air vents. The list goes on...


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2 July 2008

A good time to go green

Things have settled down here a little at Terra Infirma Towers after the most busy (and it has to be said lucrative) month in our history. I've said before that with companies feeling the pinch from falling orders and soaring oil prices, this is not a bad time to be offering cost-cutting services. The great thing about cutting material resource use, as opposed to human resources (hate that term), is that it doesn't cut your capacity to deliver products and/or services so as the economy recovers you're not floundering behind.

Of course companies can go beyond simply reducing environmental costs and start exploiting environmental business opportunities. Now you might think that this is a risky time to do so, but both the Guardian and the Times are reporting a surge in green investment and I hear the same from contacts in the banking industry.

Just don't think you can stick a green label on a duff product and expect it to succeed. Plenty have tried and failed. And I keep meeting more of them.

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