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16 April 2014

The Insiders' Guide to Making Sustainability Sustainable

Baltic template

Last Thursday, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group celebrated its second birthday at the place of its birth - the iconic Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. With views of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges and the kittiwakes wheeling around outside, it was great to be back. And just like two years previously, I couldn't resist adding a little artwork of my own to the walls - one of the graphical templates I use to structure the discussion just enough.

The topic was 'Making Sustainability Sustainable' and our journey was to go from 'business as usual' to the ideal place where sustainability was 'the new normal' by driving our (low carbon) monster truck over the big pile of boulders in our way. If you want a copy of the template, click here.

By the time we finished, the template looked like this (plus a couple of dozen tangential points captured on the flip chart):

CoSM7 results

Here's a selection of the ideas the Group generated:

  • Need to clearly define and communicate the compelling reason to act
  • Give sustainability a strong corporate brand to lock it into the business (eg Mission Zero, Plan A)
  • Use storytelling, not ‘tractor production statistics’
  • Set clear, ambitious high level goals
  • Cascade goals down through the organisation, translating them as appropriate
  • Build these goals into job descriptions/personal objectives of key people
  • Play the system – identify the key driving processes (eg risk register) and get sustainability in there
  • Identify key individuals and engage them directly eg CEO, FD
  • Put leaders on the spot eg “Can you give a presentation on sustainability?”
  • Don’t be afraid to shake things up
  • Never give up!

But as always, there was as much value to be gained from the discussion and the debate than from these bullet points. As one delegate put it "that was the best one yet - the light, airy venue was really conducive to free thinking." Not to mention the fantastic lunch in the 6 restaurant on the top floor.

The next meeting in July will discuss a related topic "How to Make Sustainability Resilient" - ie to sudden upheavals such as changes in legislation, markets, business structure or key personnel.

The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is suitable for senior sustainability managers from large organisations - see our FAQs here.


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4 April 2014

Leadership is everything in CSR

I wrote The Green Executive in 2010 to provide both an inspiration and a manual for the new generation of responsible and progressive business leaders which appeared to be emerging from the ranks of the grey suits.

Therefore it is a bit depressing to see "engaging senior management" hitting the top of the 2degrees Network's survey of corporate sustainability challenges.

Let's get one thing straight:

Leadership is everything in Corporate Social Responsibility

Without leadership, you will not get the convergence of sustainability and business strategies. Without leadership you will find it impossible to change the behaviour of your employees (whether they'll admit it or not, most look to the leadership as exemplars). Without leadership you will never get the organisation to stop environmentally/socially damaging practices voluntarily. Without leadership, you are pushing, erm, water uphill.

And if it doesn't come within, it is very difficult to persuade indifferent business leaders to take on such an enormous challenge. But I'll give you a hint. The key is not to try to hector bosses into submission, but to help them to work it out for themselves. And that's green jujitsu, the topic of another book...


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28 March 2014

Ask Gareth: Do I need a better poster?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss the limitations of telling employees to behave in a more sustainable manner - in this case to travel less - and present some ideas of how to embed sustainability into the fabric of the organisation.

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


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17 March 2014

Are you hard enough for Sustainability?


Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility roles were traditionally filled by bright young things with shiny hair, clean fleeces and extraordinary niceness, but over the years I've noticed a distinct toughening up of the profession - several of my clients and industrial contacts are ex-military and a number of others talk as if they should have been!

So what's changed? Frankly, as Chuck Norris might say, if you are going to make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs. Are you tough enough to:

  • Ditch a loyal supplier because their sustainability performance isn't up to scratch?
  • Lose a director because 'they don't get it'?
  • Kill off profitable product lines because they conflict with sustainability?

These are the questions where idealism meets harsh reality - and where others will expect you to show leadership. Sustainability is not just about partnership, mindfulness and worrying about the polar bear - sometimes you have to kick ass.

Photo © Alan Knight and used under Creative Commons Licence


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12 March 2014

Confidence in Sustainability requires direction and magnitude

go green

Another day, another story that the Government is having a rethink about one of its key green policies - this time the Carbon Price Floor (see BusinessGreen for details). This latest wobble has lead to another wobble in investor confidence - and if you want people to make a long term investment, confidence is a key factor in those decisions.

One of my clients, Sean Axon Global Sustainability Director of Johnson Matthey plc is fond of saying sustainability is like a vector. As mathematically literate readers will know, a vector consists of direction and magnitude. It is represented by a straight line with an arrow in it - the length of the line being the magnitude and the arrow showing the direction. A vector doesn't wiggle.

In other words if you want change on a global, national or organisational level, you need to communication both the direction you want to move in and how far that move is going to be - and stick to it. Confidence will follow. Hopefully the Treasury boffins can get their heads around that.


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29 August 2013

Skin in the Game

rouletteI sat nervously in the anteroom, waiting for a colleague who had set up this presentation to a meeting of senior managers on one of the big chemicals sites on Teesside. I was there to sell the concept of industrial symbiosis to them - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - as I'd secured funding to run an IS project in the Tees Valley. This was the first environmental project that I had ever conceived and got running myself, it was a big one, I was very excited about it and the nerves were starting to show.

My colleague, who had decades of experience in the industry and a fantastic network, had been coaching me on what to say and what not to say, inadvertently ramping up the pressure. But he wasn't there.

So I went in alone. I did my pitch. At the end I asked "So who wants to get involved?"


Eventually the chair cleared his throat. "You've given us plenty of food for thought. We'd be very interested in the results of your study."

"It's not a study!" I protested "I need your companies to take part."

More silence. I played my final card. "I'll leave this box at the back of the room, please put your card in it if you want to join in."

When I collected the box the next day it was empty.

My colleague, who had simply forgotten about the meeting, got some feedback from the managers. He said I'd done a good job, that I had piqued their interest, but "they're very busy people."

A couple of months later we launched the project. We got a high profile keynote speaker, some good industrialists giving case studies, but crucially, we then switched to a workshop format and got people generating ideas of how their business could get involved. There was a palpable buzz in the room and we got dozens of companies signed up. Amongst them was one of the senior managers from that first, fruitless presentation - he became the project's biggest industrial champion and helped drive it to great success.

That was my first lesson in gaining commitment. If you simply explain what you want to do and ask people if they approve, you'll get murmurs of assent, but no real buy-in. As soon as you get people actively involved in developing the project they feel they have 'skin in the game' - a little part of the of project becomes theirs - they will share in any success and share in any failure.

It's the same with, say, a corporation's sustainability strategy. If present a strategy you have prepared in a vacuum to the board and ask for approval, all you will get is people trying to dilute the actions to minimise their exposure. If you get the board involved in pinning down the basics at the start of the process, you will get a much more enthusiastic response. They will have skin in the game.


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17 July 2013

The Struggle for Sustainability

iceclimbGreenpeace don't do things by halves do they? Last week's Ice Climb protest saw 6 climbers scale London's iconic new Shard skyscraper to bring attention to Shell's intentions to drill in the arctic. A heck of a lot of effort, but it paid off as the protest got plenty of publicity - some of it scathing, it has to be said - but publicity nonetheless. Whether that publicity (and the sweat required to achieve it) actually changes anything is another matter.

Seeing the huge physical effort required from the protesters to inch their way up the building reminded me of a recent conversation with the CSR manager of a major UK brand (off the record, unfortunately). The word 'struggle' passed his lips more than once - the struggle to change sometimes quite small things within his organisation, despite its reputation for CSR.

At a sustainability roundtable I took part in a few weeks ago, Andrew Davison of Newcastle upon Tyne lawyers Muckle LLP talked of the struggle to decide whether to change their legal documentation from the traditional single sided printing to double sided. Andrew said they agonised over such a simple decision.

I've often said the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide - the space between our ears. The problem is when you get lots of people together and those 6 inches start to multiply up into what I refer to as 'institutional inertia' - the ability of an organisation to push back against change. Institutional inertia is the sustainability practitioner's worst enemy - the thing that slows everything to a crawl.

Your can use the following tactics to overcome institutional inertia:

  • Perseverance: one of the key messages from The Green Executive interviewees was 'never give up';
  • Cunning: Green Jujitsu says to align sustainability with the existing culture in the organisation - rather than trying to 'do a Greenpeace' and shock people into changing their mind - this works with the inertia, not against it;
  • Leadership: if the boardroom has bought in then they can be deployed to 'unstick' projects when necessary;
  • Raise the sights: if you have ambitious well-communicated stretch targets then small decisions will appear to be 'no brainers' compared to some big strategic decisions;
  • Include stakeholders in the discussion: if you get people together and ask them help work out how (not whether) something can be done, you can gain their buy-in very quickly.

Like scaling a building, sustainability ain't easy. But then again, that's half the fun of it.

Photo: Greenpeace


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15 July 2013

Green Thread or Spinning a Yarn?

Green Thread

A while a go I mentioned an organisation which had ditched its environmental commitments and how it had fallen back from front runner to also ran. Well now they are bragging about "the green thread which runs through everything we do!"

What this appears to mean in practice is that they do business as usual and then scrabble around for a green angle to add to it. But, as I keep pointing out to them, you can't push a thread. You can't be proactive, you can't drive new projects, you can't innovate - at best you might pick the 'least bad' option in front of you. But more often than not it is greenwash pure and simple - the thread seems to be made of the same stuff than an Emperor once had some new clothes made from, because I can't see it.

Cutting edge organisations set ambitious stretch targets which drive 'green' into the core of what they do. Don't be tempted by the false seduction of green threads, cross cutting themes and other self-delusions, do it properly.


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5 July 2013

Stand Up and Lead, Godammit!

Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Stand Up and Lead Godammit!"

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC24 Stand Up and Lead, Godammit!.

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.



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25 June 2013

Obama steps up on climate change (at last)

It was the big speech everyone concerned with climate change was waiting for. Barack Obama, leader of the world's biggest economy and second biggest carbon emitter (in terms of sources), was going to address tackling climate change head on in a speech to students at Georgetown University.

The omens weren't great. The Pres' Climate Action Plan was released hours before the speech and, while it said a lot of the right things, it consisted of a mishmash of worthy but unambitious proposals rather than a coherent strategy. So how would the speech go?

It wasn't Obama's oratorial highpoint. Wilting under (appropriately) high temperatures and competing (ironically) with aircraft flying overhead every few minutes, it was half an hour of hard slog for the man they call POTUS. But the content, oh the content, the content was spot on.

  • He demolished the case of the climate change deniers - deriding them as "the flat earth society";
  • He reframed a low carbon economy as an economic opportunity for the US, not a threat;
  • He played humble - noting that individual States were leading Federal Government and that the latter had to step up;
  • He tackled controversial issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and shale gas head on - saying the former would not go ahead unless it reduced carbon emissions and presenting the latter as a stepping stone to a low carbon economy (controversial but honest);
  • He wisely wrapped the whole issue in the Stars and Stripes - making tackling climate change a patriotic duty for a country that takes patriotism very seriously.

The impact of such leadership was instant with shares in coal companies tumbling before he'd started to speak. There was a marked contrast with the situation here in the UK where the plans are arguably much more ambitious, but the leadership is nowhere - and industry is unsure which way to jump.

I've long preached that leadership is the key issue in delivering sustainability - and it was great to see a national leader finally step up and lead. Bravo.


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8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Britain's only Green Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher, who died today, was one of the most divisive political leaders of our time with people either loving or hating her with equal passion. I must be one of the tiny minority that is ambivalent to her legacy.

As the son of a self-employed couple and who runs his own business, it would churlish not to acknowledge I have benefited massively from her economic liberalism. On the other hand, living in the North East of England I can see first hand the destruction that liberalism did to traditional heavy industries - and, Nissan at Washington aside, the lack of anything to replace those industries. This has led the demise of the proud blue collar worker and the disintegration of many communities.

But one of Mrs Thatcher's more unexpected legacies is that she remains Britain's greenest Prime Minister. She was the first to warn openly of the dangers of climate change in a speech to the UN in 1989, saying:

"We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere... The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto."

She set up the Hadley Centre to study climate change which has informed all progress and legislation since. The Green movement hates to admit it, but Mrs Thatcher set the ball rolling.

This led to one of the more bizarre climate change denial theories - as put forward in The Great Global Warming Swindle - that Thatcher invented climate change to destroy the coal industry and its Unions. This is despite the fact she pretty much did that 5 years previously in the Miners' strike.

Right-wing climate change deniers have tried to reclaim her since, but no British Prime Minister has nailed their colours to the mast so vividly. Major, Blair and Brown said nothing. David Cameron may have declared he would lead "the greenest Government ever" but he has barely managed to pay lip service since.

Cameron would do well to emulate his heroine, as Mrs Thatcher never did anything halfheartedly. Love her or hate her, you cannot accuse Mrs T of lacking in the leadership that we now need so badly.


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5 April 2013

Don't go quiet...


One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:

We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.

But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:

  • Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
  • Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
  • Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
  • Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
  • Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.

As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.


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13 March 2013

Who's better at sustainability - MegaCorps or SMEs?

Great Dane HARLEQUIN and a chihuahua

A recent survey has suggested that while 96% of FTSE100 companies see sustainability as essential to their business, the number drops to 56% when it comes to Small & Medium Sized Enterprises. Both figures came of something of a shock to me - impressed with the FTSE100 results and depressed by the SMEs.

In my experience many SMEs compete for work in a B2B environment where the big corporations and the public sector are pushing sustainability down into their supply chains. So the SMEs have more to lose as the buyers generally have a choice.

Mulling on this lead me to another question: who is better placed to embrace sustainability? Here's a simple comparison:


  • Capital investment is easier come by;
  • Resources can be brought to bear on issues with little impact on the rest of the organisation.
  • Buying power gives corporations the opportunity to build the supply chain and/or technology they want/need.
  • Lobbying power can help get things done in the wider business/political eco-system.


  • Visibility - assessments can be done very quickly and large impacts are usually obvious.
  • Agility - change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains.
  • Responsiveness - a small change can have a large impact - e.g. upgrading the sole boiler in the company.
  • Innovation - new ideas are less likely to get lost in internal politics and committees, but can tried, assessed and dropped if necessary.

I have particular scorn for those who assume SMEs struggle with sustainability - many of my favourite case studies feature forward thinking SMEs. Whether a business is big or small, fundamentally it comes down to the mentality of its leadership.


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15 February 2013

Wise Words from the Sustainability Mastermind Group

Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group

Yesterday I hosted another of our Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at another fantastic venue, this time the Biscuit Factory art gallery in Newcastle, said to be the largest commercial gallery outside London. Membership of the Group is open to senior managers and directors of large organisations who want to take sustainability to the next level.

The theme of the meeting was Global Megatrends in Sustainability and we used my sustainability PESTLE analysis as a brainstorming tool (note the lack of Powerpoint in the picture above). Group members identified key opportunities and risks they perceive and used that to discuss ways forward.

Here's just a flavour of the take away points generated during the discussion:

  • Risk of unavailability of raw materials rising to be equal to or even above risks from, say, climate change to business;
  • This in turn is opening opportunities for circular business models;
  • Philanthropy can come in the form of advice as well as cash - and is often more effective in this form;
  • Gamification is an interesting new development, but need to be cognisant of company culture or it could backfire;
  • 'Base of the pyramid' markets ripe for Creating Shared Value (CSV) type investment;
  • 'Soundbite environmentalism' is a real risk to practical sustainability solutions - if people object, remind them of the alternative - the status quo - which they are effectively defending;
  • Legislation can be a boon - grabs attention of board members and drives innovation;
  • 'Lean' and other business process improvement programmes are a prime opportunity to embed sustainability into core processes;
  • Greening supply chain can be difficult eg when there is a narrow choice in suppliers and in the case of land use changes;
  • Flood and drought risks are not being taken seriously enough by business or authorities.

After almost 3 hours of intense discussion, we had a great lunch in the David Kennedy Food Social restaurant - and continued talking sustainability over the food.


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8 February 2013

Keep that halo burnished!

business angelI had an informal meeting with the sustainability manager of a pre-eminent UK institution recently to discuss some collaboration. Like many big organisations, it had a very funky coffee bar/meeting area in the atrium so we parked ourselves there rather than a boring meeting room.

As we got up to leave, my companion got into a minor panic as she had let her tea go cold and couldn't use the recycling bin until she'd found somewhere to dispose of the liquid. Quickly she remembered where a sink was, drained the cup and put it in the right bin.

"Even though I'm doing major projects, saving loads of waste and energy, I can't afford to be seen to slip up on the little stuff." she said as we walked back out to the door.

This reminded me of the old story of Walt Disney who would pick up litter in his theme parks rather than call for an underling to do it. The message was "We're all responsible for keeping Disney World tidy. I do it and I expect you to do it."

People believe what they see, not what they're told. So we've got to lead by example and keep those halos burnished!



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1 February 2013

Just Stop It, Will You? The Acid Test for Sustainability.

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Just Stop It, Will You? The Acid Test for Sustainability". Make sure you listen to the end...

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC19 Just Stop It, Will You? The Acid Test for Sustainability.

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.



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23 January 2013

The ONE thing you MUST do to secure commitment for sustainability

If you're like me, you're always bemused by all those snake-oil-selling blog posts which claim to have the ONE, single secret to health, wealth, happiness etc. And you usually have to read through pages and pages of build up guff until they give that 'secret' away. And when you read it, you go "huh."

But here's one cure all for commitment that's genuine. And I'll get straight to the point - no salesman's spiel.

If you want to get commitment for sustainability from anyone - employees, customers, suppliers, members of the public, board members, anyone, then you need this one magical ingredient:


Yep, it's that simple, get 'em involved. Get them to roll their sleeves up and take part. Challenge them to work out what sustainability means to their day job for themselves.

You will find cynicism and apathy fall away and people get enthused, get a deeper understanding of the issues and work out what it means to them. I've been making a good career out of 'secret' for the last few years, so believe me it works.

Case study: I ran a sustainability workshop for directors of a major UK company before Christmas - I still have the post-it covered templates on the floor behind me as I write this. When I rang my main contact the following week for some feedback and he said "You know that guy who was a bit stand-offish in the session? He's never been convinced about the whole sustainability agenda. Well, he rang me the day after the workshop and asked what he needed to do to move this forward in his section - I couldn't believe it!"

Trust me, this magic elixir works!


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9 January 2013

Sustainability - No Place for Wimps!

We are too nice.

Yes, us, people who are passionate about sustainability, in our spotless fleeces, our well scrubbed faces and neatly trimmed beards. All those good intentions, warm inclusiveness and incredible politeness.

But, frankly, do we have the cojones to do sustainability properly?

I get frustrated when I get involved in debates with fellow practitioners and they say things like "we don't want sustainability to be seen as a dictat from above..."

What?! Why on earth would you not want sustainability to be seen as a priority of senior management? There's almost a fear of rocking the boat when, for 99.99% of organisations, the boat needs some serious rocking.

So, are you prepared to face up to the following necessities:

  • Getting rid of managers who resist the sustainability programme?
  • Summarily dropping suppliers who are not doing sustainability properly as a clear message to the rest of the supply chain?
  • Killing off profitable product lines which are incompatible with sustainability targets?
  • Setting seriously ambitious stretch targets to jolt the organisation out of business as usual?
  • Holding people in positions of power to account for the sustainability performance of their empire?

These may be uncomfortable positions to take, but they are the things that set the leading organisations apart from the rest - and let's face it, they're standard behaviour for organisations trying to improve their economic performance, and is sustainability not just as important?

So, let's not kid ourselves, this is not a hold-hands-around-the-campfire love in. Sustainability is serious business.


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5 December 2012

What We Can Learn from Wales' Waste Win

Last Thursday I went to the North East Recycling Forum Annual Conference - one of the few events I intend as a punter. This partly because I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces and partly because the content is always better than all those identikit commercial green conferences in London.

To open, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management gave an overview of the UK's waste sector. It was very noticeable that Wales  is shooting ahead of the other regions of the UK and has hit a 53% household waste recycling rate, compared to 43% in England.

"Why was this?" came a question from the floor. The answer given was that the Welsh Assembly has signed up to the One Planet principles at the very highest level and they develop strategies and make decisions through that prism. By contrast, English waste policy is managed by 5 different Whitehall department and is treated with different priority in each (It has to be said that Eric Pickles came in for a bit of a hammering from speakers and delegates alike.)

Politics aside, we can take three lessons from this which can be applied to any sustainability strategy:

  • Have a clear vision;
  • Secure proper buy-in at the highest level (not just lip service);
  • Proactively pursue that vision with determination and drive.

In the meantime, well done Wales! (and despite the name, I'm not Welsh).


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30 November 2012

Getting the board on board for sustainability

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Getting the Board on Board for Sustainability" and it's about how to use my green jujitsu approach to culture change to engage at the boardroom level.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC18 Getting the Board on Board for Sustainability.

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.



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