The Guardian is undoubtedly the UK's best newspaper for covering environmental issues, so it was no surprise when outgoing Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger made climate change his swan song. Unfortunately I can't help thinking the results of this well-meaning effort represent everything that's wrong with our attempts to communicate climate change.
My first gripe is format: lengthy essays stretching over several pages of dense print. I have only skimmed these myself – and I'm very interested in this stuff! How is anybody with a passing interest meant to dip in? How does it speak to those disengaged? Where are the graphics for goodness sake?
My second problem is the attitude. The series started with a couple of lengthy extracts from Naomi Klein's new book on climate change. Klein admits herself that she has only come to climate lately, having made her name as an anti-capitalist. And of course, her prescription is that it is capitalism to blame for climate change, and that those of us trying to fix the problem without smashing the system are deluded. In other words, it's all the 1%'s fault and the 99% are helpless. Might as well give up, then.
Problem is, Klein is wrong – state socialism has proved just as able as capitalism when it comes to destroying the planet – check out Russia or China's record. And, with carbon emissions stalling last year, it is clear that we can make a real difference without some (impossible) wholesale restructuring of society. I am one of many, including radicals like Jonathan Porritt, who believe we can actually make capitalism work for the planet – bringing competition, innovation and economies of scale to cutting carbon.
The paper did redeem itself with some punchy, provocative pieces by Mark Lynas and Jonathan Freedland arguing we need to de-politicise climate change and get on with tackling it, and not sit navel gazing, but these were in the main paper and not part of the climate specials.
The Beeb showed how climate change communication can be done with Climate Change by Numbers on BBC4. The programme hit the most complex and controversial topics – uncertainty, modelling, predictions, dealing with data gaps – head-on using some very clear, snazzy graphics and great analogies. For example, they demonstrated how attribution models work by analysing the success factors in Premiership football teams, building a model and showing how, if you take any Club's wage bill out of the model, then the correlation between model and reality fail. Likewise, if you take anthropogenic carbon emissions out of climate models, then the models and reality diverge sharply. OK, it was taking on a different debate to the Guardian, but it was arguably a more difficult one, yet they made it engaging and fascinating.
The time for preaching to the choir is over. Climate change is not just an issue for the left-leaning middle-class intelligentsia. We must reach out across the political spectrum, to all tribes in society, and inspire people to engage and to help make change happen. And that's going to require a rethink on how we try to communicate the message.
I'm not talking about the clean energy subsidies that PM David Cameron was (allegedly) referring to using these words. No, I'm talking about the real green crap that actually holds sustainability back:
Pointless 'green' giveaways - recycled plastic pencils that break your pencil sharpener, desk thermometers that get binned, bars of fair-trade chocolate that get eaten and forgotten. What's the point?
Green Champions - most networks of green champions I see are dysfunctional and a huge amount of energy is being spent desperately trying to keep the network going. Give responsibility to people with authority instead - and use the time freed up to do something useful.
Gimmicks like putting sweets on people's computer keyboards if they switch off their computer overnight. I'm forever surprised that organisations will pay consultants good money to spout nonsense like this.
Supplier questionnaires - many suppliers spend so much time responding to different customer's questionnaires, they don't have time to actually improve their performance - and then find the data provided rarely has any influence in contract decisions.
Awareness posters - when was the last time you saw a poster and changed your life significantly? I'm guessing never.
Regurgitating idiotic received wisdom - if you need to buy a drink, bottled water will almost certainly have a lower ecological footprint than all of the alternatives except thirst. Not all biodiesels are evil. Carbon offsetting is not immoral - no-one dies.
Talking woo-hoo eco-bollocks like 'eco-centric world views', 'endosymbiotic thrivability' or 'spiritual animistic reverence'. Just don't. No-one will listen anyway.
Hitching sustainability to the latest fad. "You can't have sustainability without mindfulness" someone told me recently. You know what? You can.
If you make one sustainability resolution this year, how about to cut the green crap?
Last Friday saw the final Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group of 2014. We met in the fantastic Biscuit Factory art gallery in Newcastle, surrounded by some wonderful pieces of art (above).
The theme of the meeting was Green Communications and here are 12 of the 44 learning points arising from the discussion:
It’s easier to get green communications very wrong than wonderfully right.
All communications have to be able to answer the question “so what?”
Facts must be in context – what does it mean?
'Green' and ‘sustainable’ are difficult words – facts may be more powerful.
Authenticity is the key success factor.
Admitting mistakes or including honest third party views (eg Jonathan Porritt with Marks & Spencer) helps authenticity.
Some people want detail, some want the big picture – need to provide for both by 'layering' the message.
Need to target the audience(s) with influence – may be a step or two removed from your immediate stakeholders eg customers of your customers.
Match format to the audience – eg data and charts for technical audiences, infographics for non-technical audiences.
Age matters: millennials have different values/language than, say, baby boomers.
Litmus test – does the message get echoed back, or does the same question get asked over and over again?
Make your communications team part of your sustainability team to cut the number of hoops you have to jump through.
As ever, the discussion that lead to these points was more valuable than these bullet points.
The Group members have identified a fascinating and challenging topic for the next meeting - 'Age and Sustainability' - how we need to account for the differences between millennials and baby boomers in our sustainability programmes.
Last Friday saw the last Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting of 2015 - we were discussing green communications. I'll be posting some of the multitude of learning points here later in the week, but one key point that arose was the need to speak to the right audience.
Most companies try and speak to everybody with the same bland, uninspiring message - and waste their time and money as everybody ignores it. Green jujitsu says you must tailor the message to the audience, so first you need to identify your audience. The 'right' audience is the one which will have maximum impact (positive or negative) on your sustainability efforts. It might not be immediately obvious who that target audience should be:
Internally, people with influence over business models and product/service design are the people you need to target.
Externally, it gets more difficult. If you produce an eco-friendly material, then the people you need to speak to are often a couple of levels along the value chain - in the ultimate brand for consumer goods. You want them to instruct their suppliers to buy your material.
It might take a bit of head scratching and trial and error to get it right - but it's worth the effort!
Yesterday the UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) launched a tweetathon around the hashtag #BackClimateAction. The idea was that each hour between 9am and 7pm people would tweet on a different theme - everything from Cities & Homes to Sport.
Now, DECC's previous attempts at public engagement have included an unmitigated disaster - the infamous 'bedtime story' in 2009 (above) signed off by a certain Ed Miliband MP. So, despite the change in administration at DECC, I must admit I was more than a little sceptical before I started, but I dutifully chose Business Hour at 3pm and settled down in front of Tweetdeck with a cup of tea.
Reader, I tried my best. I tweeted resources, I asked questions, I answered others' questions.
I had a couple of brief interactions with people I already knew while a torrent of noise slid past on TweetDeck. After 30 minutes, I gave up and started writing this piece.
To be slightly more objective, I put out a question at the end of the hour asking whether anybody had found it of value. Three people got back to me to say they had picked up some good ideas.
That said, the numbers taking part were certainly impressive - DECC says they got 100 million 'impressions'. But the exam question is, did all this effort lead to ANY engagement of the disengaged?
I know this is non-scientific I couldn't see one person tweeting who didn't already have a strong vested interest in sustainability (apart from the ubiquitous semi-clad spam merchants who pick up on any trending hashtag). This effect is known as an 'echo chamber' - people who agree on something agreeing rather noisily and at length. They tend to assume that it attracts a wider audience, but this is debatable - witness all those exasperated #CameronMustGo tweeters complaining that the mainstream media is ignoring their protest against the British PM.
But in a way, this lack of wider engagement is inevitable. The whole point of a hashtag is to bring people of similar interests together, not to attract those on the sidelines. As a rallying call to the faithful, the tweetathon was obviously successful, but we need to go beyond that - and fast.
Engaging the disengaged is the biggest challenge in sustainability, but a hashtag probably isn't the way to go about it.
My eldest son, Harry, is doing a project at school entitled 'The Angry Earth.' Last night over dinner he suddenly shouted "I hate global warming!"
His mother, possessor of more degrees than you can shake a stick at, said "Why?"
"Because we will get no more snow!" he retorted.
"Or we might get lots of snow..." I muttered
"Because it could mess with our weather system."
As I spoke I realised I had opened the whole weather/climate can of worms. He's a very clever boy but I was at risk of leaving him confused. We talked it through and he seemed OK with the idea that global warming might result in local freezing. But it begs the question - is it better to leave people with a over-simplistic understanding of climate change or confuse them with the complexities?
It is this reason that I've given up trying to explain climate change science to people in my employee engagement work for clients. I prefer to ask people what they are going to do about carbon emissions instead - usually a much more fruitful conversation.
* Sharp-eyed fans of Game of Thrones might notice that Harry is pictured in the courtyard of Winterfell, give or take a little CGI and a lot of mud.
Not to my face, the individual is too cowardly to look me in the eye. No, he took to Twitter and attacked me for not being 100% against fracking - merely 80%. My arguments for leaving the door slightly ajar were a. while shale gas is a fossil fuel, shale gas is almost certainly much better than coal, b. we could find ourselves in an energy security crisis before too long, and c. the sensible end of the environmental movement has left such black and white dogma behind them and is making swift progress without that baggage weighing them down.
I resisted the temptation to hit reply and leave either a pithy one-liner or fire a torrent of scorn in his direction (it never works out the way you would like, anyway - I just end up waking up in the middle of the night 'cos I've though of a REALLY good put-down).
But it got me thinking about the difference between the new breed of pragmatic environmentalist and the old style ideologues. What about these rules of pragmatic environmentalism as a starter for ten:
Everybody is an environmentalist - you just have to find what is important to them.
Evidence rules: you can't cherry-pick the data that suits you.
No inner priesthood: we have to make sustainability relevant to others, not bend them to our will.
Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage.
I LOVE a good infographic. A good infographic (let's call it 'an infographic' for short) adds value to data by presenting it in an easily digestible and engaging form. The graphic above from skepticalscience.com, demonstrates the difference between the scientific view on climate change and that of the general public (although the colour key is missing for some reason). But, even for the most numerate, the graphic illustrates the point much more strongly than the numbers.
I HATE false infographics. Take this one by Volvo (click to enlarge). It consists of numbers and statements, put into a quirky format and with some broadly relevant clipart scattered over it. You could argue that the layout and images distract rather than add to the information (and patronise the reader), but at best they merely decorate it.
There is no doubt that infographics, if done properly, can add hugely to our communication of sustainability issues. But that's a big 'if'. If it doesn't add value, go back to the drawing board.
Last week saw the eighth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We rolled up to another top-notch venue, the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland - a County Durham village recycled out of a monastery many centuries ago (is that upcycling or downcycling? discuss...).
The topic of this meeting was Resilience - how do we prepare for and deal with unexpected and sudden changes. The Group chose to focus on raw material security, legislation, NGO campaigns and changes in key personnel. Here's a selection of the learning points generated:
Unpredictable things happen - Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘unknown unknowns’;
Instability is the new business reality;
Unpredictability makes risk assessment increasingly difficult;
Too many people like to bury bad news or ignore ominous weak signals;
Sometimes a bad experience is required to focus minds on preventative measures – do not be afraid to use it;
Review each crisis – how did we handle it? What can we learn?
Legislation can come over the horizon very quickly eg ESOS;
Can spend a huge amount of time and energy reacting to legislation when proactive planning can be more effective;
Turn trauma into opportunity via new product/service development;
Clicktivism means campaigns can rise up the agenda very quickly;
Develop a set procedure and script to deal with a PR crisis – don’t ‘do a Tony Hayward’;
Warning signals on security of supply are flashing eg China’s monopolisation of rare earth metals or US food production problems;
Develop long term supplier relationships for key strategic raw materials;
Circular economy and renewable energy solutions may be more resilient to global risks;
Have sustainability properly embedded so back-pedalling by a new executive is more difficult than moving forward;
Work out what makes a new person tick and pitch sustainability in those terms.
As always it is how we got to these points that held the most value for participants.
The meeting concluded with a fantastic lunch followed by a circular stroll up onto the moors above the village and back along the river Derwent. Life's hard sometimes!
It is usually politicians who are brought down by preaching one thing and then being found to be practising quite the opposite. But now it is another of our moral guardians which has been found wanting - Greenpeace have admitted one of their directors, Pascal Husting, regularly commutes by air from his home in Luxembourg to the NGO's HQ in Amsterdam.
Husting's defence - that he has a young family, the train journey is a 12 hour round trip, and that the arrangement was only meant to be temporary - would stand up for anybody other than a senior staffer of an organisation which has campaigned fiercely against air travel.
While I respect Greenpeace and their aims, I've always been uncomfortable with that NGO tendency to preach at those who 'don't get it'. And, if you are going to make environmental protection a moral issue, then you cannot, and must not, live a high-carbon lifestyle out of convenience - because that's exactly what you are criticising others for doing.
It all comes down to authenticity - being what you say you are. If you are going to lead on sustainability, whether in an organisation or in public life, then you must be seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Set the standard for everyone and stick to it yourself, because people believe what they see, not what they read.
The coda is that a chastened Husting is now taking the train.
My eldest son, Harry, has been asked to design a carbon footprint awareness poster at school this week. As I dropped him off this morning, I took a moment to admire their drafts. One said "Save the Universe!!!" - I don't think climate change is quite that bad, but I admire the sentiment. All of them focussed on telling us what we shouldn't do - leave lights on, drive too much, fail to recycle.
As I've said before, kids naturally get sustainability and can respond to such simple slogans. Unfortunately much of our green comms messages for adults aren't any more sophisticated than the kids' efforts - Switch it off! Save the whale! Don't fly! - yet they need to cut through the clutter of our everyday lives, our deeply ingrained habits and our carefully cultivated cynicism. If you want to get that message through, it needs to be relevant to our everyday lives.
One interesting approach used by the Eco-schools project is to get kids to interest their parents in sustainability, for example by getting the kids to do projects about the environmental impact of their domestic lives. Companies such as Nestlé do similar, having used family activities such as building a butterfly garden as part of their sustainability engagement. I see this as a form of Green Jujitsu - if people listen to their kids, and kids get it, then let the kids do the talking.
If I had to choose the best method for communicating sustainability, my automatic first choice would be involvement (workshops, problem solving etc). But if you are need an effective broadcast method, then storytelling is the next best thing. We relate to stories in a way we can't relate to raw facts or data.
I must admit my evidence for this came mainly from my own experiences and received wisdom, but now scientists have weighed in with proof. Some recent neuroscience research by Uri Hanson at Princeton shows that when you tell a story, brain activity of audience members starts to reflect that of the storyteller:
By simply telling a story, the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains.
[Hasson] found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's. When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.
So the next time you are giving a talk on sustainability or writing the 'green pages' on your company newsletter, make sure that you tell stories - lots of them. It's what your audience will latch onto. And that's scientific fact.
I'm busy writing up the results of a client workshop and something that has struck me is how the following two phrases are used interchangeably:
"Changing culture to embrace sustainability"
"Embedding sustainability into the culture of the business"
I must admit I sometimes mix the two up, but, if you think about it, they are quite different mindsets and it is very important to distinguish between them.
"Changing culture" carries the impression of imposing a worldview on employees - at worst trying to brainwash them. This is extremely difficult to do, morally dubious and most people trying it simply flounder.
"Embedding sustainability into the culture" implies working with the culture that is already there to find common ground between people's attitudes and sustainability - in other words what I call Green Jujitsu. This isn't easy either, but it is a much more effective approach than trying to change culture wholesale.
Language matters - so we must choose our words carefully.
I was having another rant about the pointlessness of green awareness weeks/days/hours recently when Hiram Wurf pointed me towards the satirical song "National Brotherhood Week" by Tom Lehrer recorded in 1965. Hits the nail right on the head. Enjoy!
The first green neologism I have come across in 2014 is 'green hush'. If greenwash is exaggerating environmental performance then green hush is playing it down. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is A BAD THING.
Is it, really?
For a start, many organisations that have a good sustainability record and did publicise it have come under attack from the green movement for not being perfect. Who decides how green green is?
Secondly, what was seen as green a decade ago - ISO14001, office paper recycling, energy efficient lighting, building management systems, IT virtualisation, digitisation - are now seen as the new normal. This is obviously a good thing, but it creates the risk that you could find yourself being accused of greenwash for not keeping your marketing material right up to date.
And lastly, at the end of the day what matters is a smaller footprint, not the distracting debate that swirls around it.
That said, there is an argument that good communication of environmental performance helps raise the bar across business - and there are PR benefits for individual companies if the greenwash bear traps can be avoided. What is important is HOW the message is communicated - making it compelling, robust and in context. And that's quite a challenge.
On Tuesday we had the sixth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis.
We returned to a venue for the first time, the fantastic Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. Most of this room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships, and it has functioned as everything from a prison to a wine cellar and, most recently, for exploring sustainability strategy in detail!
The Mastermind Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, or give the specific examples we were discussing, but here is a selection of the generic conclusions we reached:
Business meets societal needs. No value => no profit and no profit => no value;
Defining societal need in large companies can be difficult as they are often multi-faceted;
Fundamental question: does growth => more harm? Depends on business model;
Ethical dilemma – whose ethics are ethical? The definition may be out of your hands;
Another ethical dilemma – where does responsibility end? Again, the definition may be out of your hands;
Fundamentally need to do what’s right for your business;
One effective tactic is to drive sustainability goals by piggybacking on other business goals;
Need to decide on granularity of the strategy eg simple energy efficiency measures vs reconfiguring whole business;
Sometimes you arrive at sustainability objectives from a different direction, but this is not a problem;
Asset intensive industries typically use 5 year rolling planning cycle – too short for sustainability planning;
Ten year stretch targets for sustainability are compatible with such a cycle;
An alternative is to use iconic dates eg corporate centenaries – something for the organisation to rally around;
People can obsess about the little stuff ,eg disposable coffee cups, and ignore the big picture;
Emotions beat arguments, so show don’t tell – “facts” are never enough;
‘Behind the label’ – provide the detail for those who want to dive into it;
Need to complete the whole product sustainability jigsaw;
A full product life cycle assessment can be a real eye opener, however care must be taken with life cycle assumptions (eg use patterns, life span);
Product stories are an increasingly effective way to market green performance;
Independent substantiation of all claims is vital.
As always, the real benefit of the session lies in how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.
The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations. It meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.
If I told you about a country where, last quarter, more than a third of all electricity was generated from low carbon sources, which one do you think I'd be talking about?
Well I'm sat in it, and so are many of you: dear old Blighty.
Household recycling rates are nudging the 45-50% mark, depending on where you are in the country.
All this from what was 'the dirty man of Europe'? The one where renewable sources barely registered on energy statistics just a couple of years ago? The one with the throw-away culture?
As Fat Boy Slim would say, we've come a long way, baby.
What's interesting is that nobody has really noticed. Green is becoming the new normal. So much so that some organic food/drink producers now don't label their product as such in case consumers assume it's a niche product at a premium price. They just want it to be seen as a great product in a normal way.
And that's a good thing.
Some green ideologues may cry foul, saying that that this isn't deep green enough, but asking people to live in tie-dyed yurts, meditating on ley lines and knitting yoghurt, will get you nowhere.
Normal, everyday, mundane even - that's the ultimate green goal.
We've all been there - sat in the audience while a sharp suited executive stands in front of glossy corporate Powerpoint slides and tells us how wonderful their sustainability programme is. When it comes to the Q&A, any query with a hint of controversy is skilfully deflected with a well worn platitude. And all the time you're sat there thinking "I bet that's not the real story." And you're right, 9 times out of 10 the gloss covers some really deep cracks and doesn't extend into the darkest corners.
But how likely is it that that our speaker would stand up and list all the mishaps, outright failures and the stuff they haven't done yet as it's too difficult? For some brands such honesty would hit the headlines - and could pitch said executive onto the dole queue (it's been known to happen.)
So how do you open up honest conversations and meaningful dialogue while still allowing people to share what they have learned?
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
This is incredibly simple, and it relies on trust, but it is very effective. We can share the WHAT but not the WHO, reducing the risk of recrimination and allowing us to share gems such as:
"We don't have a hope in hell of hitting that target, but if I dilute it, we won't even come close, so we're sticking with it to keep the pressure on."
Far more insightful than the typical public equivalent:
"We've hit 80% of our targets already and we're well on our way to hit the rest."
Typically the Chatham House Rule works better in smaller forums and those with a reasonably fixed membership so peer pressure does the enforcement.
The second rule of the Mastermind Group is "NO POWERPOINT" - if you want to have a meaningful discussion, then a 40 slide deck is not the way to go about it. Instead we have a facilitated discussion using one of my signature A0 templates and Post-Its. I've written about the power of workshops before, so I won't go into details here.
And, if you are wondering, the third and last rule is "No dreary executive buffets" - we eat properly!