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!
On Tuesday we had the fifth 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 met in what was probably our best location yet, the Undercroft at the Live Theatre Newcastle. Most of the room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships. It has been used for storing flammable materials, French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and those press-ganged into the Navy - certainly the huge thick metal doors gave the place a slight penitentiary feel.
I was press-ganging the members into discussing next generation sustainability strategies - a massive topic which we are going to continue next time. The Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, but here are some highlights:
Most organisations need to shift from an organisation focussed strategy to a product focussed strategy;
That shift means engaging with the market and addressing supply chains are essential steps;
A sustainability strategy must be built around the business drivers for that organisation – so a meaningful understanding of drivers is a prerequisite;
Stretch targets raise sights and broaden thinking – however they must remain credible;
Won’t achieve the endpoint without breaking the journey down into intermediate steps;
Is the Brundtland definition of sustainability ambitious enough? Should we not want to improve the world for future generations?
But in such net positive thinking, how do you make sure you don’t cheat and claim others' efforts for yourself?
At what point do sustainability and business strategies converge into one? They will inevitably do so;
Communicate the strategy using big clear statements, underpinned by clarifying statements, data and caveats;
What you stop doing is as important, if not more so, as what you start doing.
As always, the real benefit was 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 which 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.
The great paradox of sustainability is that it is extremely complicated and yet, to make progress, we need to make it appear simple to wider audiences. Regular readers will know I have been mulling recently on the need to 'simplicate' sustainability - make it accessible without losing so much substance as to render it meaningless.
This topic came up at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group and during our discussion I alighted on the not terribly original analogy of an iceberg - that the visible tip is just a fraction of its mass. If we make the visible tip a simple compelling message along the lines of Marks & Spencer's "Plan A, because there is no Plan B", then we need to deftly back this up with all the evidence, caveats and nuances without detracting from that simple message.
So the sustainability section (or preferably the home page) of the corporate website, say, would have the 3-5 main pledges/targets and links would take the curious and/or sceptical deep into the evidence and thinking. While the former can be easily rattled off by everybody from the CEO to the cleaner, the detail will satisfy the curious and/or sceptical and, if done honestly, see off the risk of accusations of greenwash.
Last week, I was revelling in the concept of simplication of sustainability - making the complex appear simple and accessible without losing anything critical. The antonym of simplicate is complify - to make things more complicated sounding than they really are. Well, this week I landed by chance on the phrase "endosymbiotic thrivability".
I like what the coiners of that phrase are trying to get at - 'endosymbiotic' refers to a rather particular biological phenomenon of one organism developing inside another - used as an analogy for society evolving within the natural world to the benefit of both - and 'thrivability' is about looking beyond mere sustainability into a future where we do more than merely exist. Those are both worthy ideas that I already stand for.
And it's a big BUT.
I've worked in sustainability for over 15 years and I had to google 'endosymbiotic'. In fact, I first read it as 'endoscopy' which is something else entirely... What chance, then, does the person in the street trying to make ends meet, or the executive in a high pressure boardroom, or the politician trying to get re-elected have of getting their head around this concept quickly? Those are our target audiences!
And while I agree with presenting the future as thriving rather than some kind of hair-shirt, back-to-the-yurt movement, we're just about getting some traction on the word 'sustainability' (which is a real word) without ripping it up and trying to sell a brand new one. Perfection is all too often often the enemy of success.
Setting aside the irony of using neologisms to knock neologisms, but we really do need to concentrate on simplicating rather than complifying sustainability - make it accessible, intuitive and attractive to people outside the sustainability field. Because, after all, it is those people in their multitudes who will deliver sustainability in practice, not the inner priesthood of practitioners.
What I like about it, apart from the animation has another fan, is the portmanteau word "Simplicated" - defined in the Urban Dictionary as
"Something that is simple and complicated at the same time."
and as a verb as
"To make something simpler through a process that initially seems daunting or complicated."
It struck me that this sums up sustainability - it is both simple and complicated at the same time. Our challenge as sustainability champions is to make the whole concept simple and accessible without undermining the scale and scope of the challenge.
If I have achieved that with The Art of Green Jujitsu, I am very proud indeed - and it sets the bar for the rest of my work!
It's almost a year since my Green Jujitsu book was published by DoSustainability. As regular readers will know, Green Jujitsu is the concept of aligning 'green' to your company culture, working to its strengths rather than trying to correct 'weaknesses'. So in an engineering company, you ditch the poor-polar-bear guilt trip and present sustainability as an engineering problem - and challenge employees to develop solutions because that's what they know and love.
Since publication, I've been using Green Jujitsu at many of the UK's biggest organisations both in the public and the private sector. Every time I do an engagement, I refine the techniques a little more and one that has emerged is segmentation.
For some organisations, you can assume that culture is fairly homogenous, but in others there are quite distinct job roles which will employ quite different people. For example, when working with one of the country's leading scientific organisations, we realised that there was a gulf in culture between scientific staff and support staff such as security and cleaners. The scientists wanted evidence for any statement to the extent that some divisions would provide them with, say, raw energy consumption data and let them do their own statistical analysis on it! It was the only way to keep them happy.
Like most of the rest of us, the typical security guard wouldn't have the time, resources or, frankly, inclination to go to these lengths. The security sector tends to be much more rule-based in culture, so the guards will want clear guidance on, say, what equipment and lights can and should be switched off overnight and what needs to be left on.
Clearly what is a turn on for one job role is a turn off for the other. The answer, then, is segmentation. In the same way that marketeers and political psephologists divide society into different segments, a diverse organisation should brainstorm the different audiences and apply Green Jujitsu to each one. So the eggheads get their data and the guards get the 'switch off' guidance embedded into their procedures.
One word of warning: while tailoring the message to each segment is essential, it is important not to stereotype employees in a crude or restrictive way. The insights and suggestions from those on the front line such as security guards are just as useful, if not more so, than those from academic backgrounds, so make sure you engage properly with everyone.