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23 March 2015

My Sustainability Brain Dump

cover170x170I was interviewed by Anthony Day for his weekly Sustainable Futures Show podcast recently and we had a great old chin wag which covered a whole range of my favourite sustainability topics:

  • How I got started in sustainability;
  • How others can get started;
  • The business case for sustainability;
  • Sustainability leadership;
  • How to do employee engagement properly (Green Jujitsu);
  • Integrating sustainability properly;
  • How the 80:20 rule can help you accelerate sustainability;
  • Measuring progress.

...and a whole lot more. You can hear what I had to say by clicking here.

 

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13 March 2015

Sir Ian Cheshire on Sustainable Business Leadership

sir ian cheshireI had a fantastically green night out in London on Tuesday. After an impromptu diversion into a St Patrick's, er, Month drinks reception at the Irish Embassy, my good friend Fiona Harvey, eminent Grauniad environment journo, took me to the extraordinarily posh Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall for dinner and, appropriately enough, an after-dinner talk.

The talk was 'Sustainable Business Leadership' by Sir Ian Cheshire, outgoing CEO of the Kingfisher Group (which owns B&Q). The knighthood was awarded for "services to business, sustainability, and the environment" and what Sir Ian said showed it was richly deserved – here are the quotes I scribbled down:

  • I am attracted to business with a mission and a purpose.
  • Don’t you want to work for a business which makes a difference?
  • Sustainability is the engine for our business.
  • Diversity in teams leads to a huge step forward; don’t pick people like you.
  • You have to recognise which decisions matter and what doesn’t: 4 or 5 big calls will determine 80% of your impact.
  • We live in a hyper-transparent world, you can’t pretend anymore.
  • Do you want to be moderately less evil or net positive? The latter’s much more exciting.
  • You’ve got to give people permission to try stuff.
  • It takes an incredibly long time to explain sustainability to your business – I found it took at least 5 attempts.
  • You’ve got to make your solutions relevant to the DNA of your business.
  • You’ve got to translate sustainability for people. There’s no Russian word for sustainability, but Russians love their forests and their water quality.
  • If you don’t understand the warp and weft of your business, sustainability will not work.
  • Corporates create space for Governments to act.
  • CEO questions can drive innovation.
  • Our drive for FSC kitchens cost us £30m, but the perception of quality in the marketplace went up.
  • Our biggest problem isn’t greenwash but greenhush. We don’t talk enough about what we are doing.
  • Ultimately you need sustainability solutions which scale. Without scalability, we won’t get sustainability.

My advice for anyone trying to deliver sustainability in their organisation is to plunder that list for ideas.

 

Disclosure: The dinner was a private one, so I have run the quotes past Sir Ian to check he was OK with them going public.

Photo taken from snipview.com

 

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17 February 2015

Most leaders don't understand that leadership is critical to sustainability

Opening eyes

An anecdote from another consultant this week really resonated with me. He had a meeting with a C-level executive at a major client about an aspect of sustainability (you'll have guessed by now that I'm being deliberately vague to protect my colleague). The executive got rather hot under the collar because the consultant asked questions pertaining to the level of leadership on this issue. The meeting didn't end well.

This has happened to me many a time - at middle or senior management levels. When I used to do simple waste minimisation visits on behalf of the now defunct Envirowise, there was always the point where I was taken to the operations manager or production manager as the environmental manager, who had typically invited me in, couldn't answer the questions. So I would sit in the former's office, politely working through my questions while the temperature plummeted. Fierce glances would be fired at the environmental manager who would eventually cut the meeting short.

There's a big lesson for sustainability practitioners here - whether internal or external. People don't like to be challenged on their own patch. And the further up the reporting chain you go, the worse it gets.

This is exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers see paying lip service to sustainability as 'leadership'. It's not - leadership on sustainability almost always involves driving step changes in the way the organisation operates, not just finding the right words.

Unless you have built up a really trusting relationship with that individual, if you even imply that the putative 'leader' is not really leading, things can get very heated, very quickly.

My preferred approach is to help the leader work out for themselves what they need to be doing. Easier said than done, but it does work - and without any bruised egos.

 

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19 January 2015

The Rules of the Game - but whose rules?

secret raceAt the weekend I finished reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton - the coruscating inside story of the doping scandal that rocked the cycling world and eventually led to the downfall of its golden child, Lance Armstrong. Hamilton was telling the story from the point of view of a cheat, a liar and a fraud, but he asked the killer question: if you had fought to the very top of your field and then found that the only way to compete was to cheat, what would YOU do?

As I'm sure most people would reply, I'd like to think I'd blow the whistle. But would I?

Back in my early twenties, I was given a work placement in a small electronics company working in a very competitive field, with the axe always hanging over the workforce. As well as the QA work I was there to do, I was asked by one of the salesmen to help him out. He'd had a query from a potential client about the specs of their product compared to competitors. He asked me to put together the figures.

When I proudly presented them to him, he said "Right, go back and anywhere where our spec is below the others, bump ours up until it is even." I stared at him, gobsmacked. He gave me an avuncular look, "Look son, this is how you play the game, everybody does it, we wouldn't be able to compete if we didn't." I looked around at the other guys in the room. No-one spoke, but my boss nodded.

Of course I should have said "Do your own dirty work." but I didn't. I felt the peer pressure and caved. I went and changed the figures and passed them back to him.

It turned out that the dodgy figures were never used, so I never became an accessory to an actual deception. But that was just luck. Peer pressure from the prevailing culture had made me compromise my values. OK, it was a long, long way from cheating your way to 7 Tour de France yellow jerseys, but the underlying principle was the same, just (radically) different circumstances.

In banking, politics and the media, to name just a few, the culture has been so corrupted that cheating has become the norm. And the question is, are those people morally weaker than average, or are they just being human? Hamilton argues the latter.

Of course, the same cultural pressures can be used for good. In the same way that 'dopers' are now ostracised in pro-cycling, a positive ethical culture makes 'doing the right thing' seen as a virtue rather than as priggishness. If you want to have an ethical culture, you've got to show ethical leadership. When someone stands up and says "this isn't right" they need to be embraced, not ostracised.

And if you are interested in ethics, Hamilton's book's definitely worth a read!

 

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19 December 2014

Some consistency please, Mr Cameron

CameronHuskiesAs a good liberal, I'm always keen to give people the benefit of the doubt. When newly installed Prime Minister David Cameron promised back in 2010 to preside over "the greenest Government ever", I was delighted, if a tad sceptical. Then, last winter, he was said to want "to get rid of all this green crap" in relation to energy bills.

The last few months, and indeed days, have seen a continuation of this wild see-sawing between rampant scepticism and enthusiastic flag waving. Here are some high- and lowlights:

  • 23 September 2014: To the UN, Cameron put forward a solid right-of-centre argument for a low carbon economy: "We need to give business the certainty it needs to invest in low carbon... we need a framework built on green growth not green tape." This was probably the first major speech on climate change by a UK PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
  • 1 October 2014: To the Conservative Party conference, the green economy got the very briefest of mentions: "leading the way on tackling climate change".
  • 16 December 2014: He tells the Liaison Committee that people are "Frankly fed up with so many wind farms being built that won't be necessary. Enough is enough and I am very clear about that." He goes on to say he wants to phase out subsidies on renewables and talks up fracking instead.
  • 17 December 2014: Prime Minister's Questions: Cameron answers two questions on green energy, both times enthusiastically declaring that the green economy is creating jobs. In response to a third question he brags of having halved excess winter deaths from fuel poverty through insulating homes.

In The Green Executive, I posit that to deliver sustainability, we need leadership above all else. Paraphrasing leadership guru Warren Bennis, I listed 4 key leadership qualities:

  • A sense of purpose;
  • Trust;
  • Resilience;
  • Bias towards action.

It's clear that on all of these things, Cameron's performance is lacking. His sense of purpose is all over the place which impacts in turn on trust - and without trust, investors will hedge their bets, slowing progress. He shows little resilience and we could do with a lot more action rather than a constant wrestling match with his much greener Liberal Democrat coalition partners (usual disclosure: I'm a member of the Lib Dems).

The strangest thing of all is that, despite this, the UN recently ranked the UK third in the world for its efforts in tackling climate change, so Cameron could justifiably say he had delivered on his promise. But just imagine what we could have achieved if he showed a bit of leadership!

 

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17 November 2014

A neat trick to engage your boss in sustainability

Tony_Abbott_-_2010An interesting thing happened at the G20 summit which took place in Australia over the weekend. Aussie premier Tony Abbott (right) is one of the few pro-coal, anti-climate action leaders in the world, but he ended up signing a communiqué including the following phrases:

We support strong and effective action to address climate change.

We reaffirm our commitment to rationalise and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

(I've stripped out the detail to focus on the commitments)

How did this happen?

A: Peer pressure.

With the weight of the leaders of the world's greatest economies pressing down on him, Abbott crumbled and signed. Whether he will act is another matter, but he signed - a significant step that he can be reminded of if he doesn't act.

How can you perform a similar miracle in your business if the boss, or one of the bosses, isn't interested?

Look to their peers and identify those who are taking sustainability seriously. Those peers could be individuals or they could be organisations. Then ask yourself: Are your competitors doing better on sustainability? Well, constantly compare your organisation to the best. Are you a member of a trade organisation? Suggest your boss gives a presentation on your sustainability programme. Has an individual peer been recognised? Work that into your communications.

The G20 showed that peer pressure works. Use it.

Photo © MystifyMe Concert Photography (Troy) Creative Commons License

 

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3 November 2014

Science Has Spoken (Again) - Now What?

IPCCSo the cycle goes around again. The International Panel on Climate Change produces its five yearly synthesis report on the state of climate change science and, instead of triggering an outburst of action, we get another rather dreary media debate between NGOs, climate change 'sceptics' and politicians of all stripes.

Given that the report says acting now will prove much easier than playing catch up in a decade, what do we need to do to get going? Here's my happen'th:

1. Political Leadership: Obama is trying to make climate change a core plank of his second term, but seems to be hobbled by his own mediocre popularity rankings and the rampant, take no prisoners climate change denial of his Republican opponents. Our own David Cameron blows hot and cold. Other industrial powerhouses such as China and Germany are doing their bit, but hardly showing international leadership - that is to left to relatively poor countries such as the Philippines and the Maldives to tug at our heartstrings. Who is going to stand up and lead?

2. Business Leadership: as I've said many times, leadership is the difference between the best at sustainability and the rest. Sustainability leadership cannot be delegated to middle management - it must come from the top. And actions speak louder than words - let's see some real ambition.

3. A Flexible International Framework: different countries will have different risks, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, we need a framework which allows countries to thrive while cutting carbon. Action needs to be rewarded as much as inaction is punished.

4. Open Minds: the report concludes that no single mitigation or adaptation measure will solve climate change. We need every weapon in our arsenal - even some we may personally not like. This applies to economics as well as technology - we need economies of scale in clean technology which an anti-business mindset will hinder, not help. NGOs will have to learn when they are helping and when they are hindering and adjust aim their guns appropriately.

5. Smarter Communication: Different people respond to different words, phrases and visions and we need top not only accept that, but positively embrace it. A few weeks ago I praised David Cameron for his framing of carbon reduction from a centre-right point of view - green growth, not green tape. Centre left thinkers may respond better to a message around collaboration, regulation and community action. Which is right? Both.

6. Positivity: we must not let the scale of the task frighten us, failures stop us in our tracks, or those throwing abuse from the sidelines put us off. We have a goal, let's go and do it - and have some fun while we're at it!

 

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26 August 2014

Leadership is (still) THE key factor in Sustainability

Green Executive coverFour years on, I'm back in the Yorkshire holiday 'cottage' - actually a 3.5 bedroom stone house - where I beat my second book, The Green Executive, into shape. It's lovely to be back in such an important location to me, even though the leather recliner and ottoman upon which much of the work was done has sadly gone.

I write in a very non-linear style. Once I have a theme, I start by sketching a structure to lay out the overall framework. Then I copy and paste all my previous musings on each topic (from this blog and elsewhere) into that structure. Then I start on an epic cycle of filling in the big obvious gaps (some of that text can appear back on this blog!) and editing the recycled text so it is fresh, up to date and coherent with the new text.

This cycle continues until I get to the tipping point - the critical read-through and edit after which only superficial changes are required to ease the passage of the reader from introduction to conclusions, along with the odd minor fact sourcing. It was here in Croft House, Askrigg where I did that crucial edit for the Green Executive - it only took me two weeks of early morning sessions!

Anyway, the central theorem of The Green Executive is that Leadership is the difference between those who dabble in sustainability and those who really succeed. How does that argument stand up four years down the line?

Well, perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was the survey of challenges faced by sustainability practitioners by the 2degrees network. The No1 challenge? (drum roll...)

Engaging senior management.

In other words, lack of leadership is what most practitioners think is the factor holding them back. Why is this important?

Because without proper leadership, no significant change will happen in the organisation. That's what leadership is for - to set the strategic direction in the business. So, yes, without buy-in you might persuade someone to specify a much more efficient boiler or trial electric vehicles in the fleet, but the really big stuff - exploiting business opportunities in the low carbon economy, deleting product lines which are intrinsically unsustainable and/or investing in a supply chain to provide recycled material at a competitive quality, quantity and price - all that just won't happen.

And all too often, in my experience, sustainability gets stuck at the middle management level because no-one at the leadership level wants to pick up the baton and run with it.

The Green Executive still sells moderately well (ie at all) for a specialised business book, but I await the day it shoots up the charts as maybe that will be the sign that the penny has finally dropped!

 

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6 August 2014

Ask Gareth: 5 Steps to Make Sustainability 'The New Normal'

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I set out the 5 things you really need to do to make sustainability 'the new normal' in your organisation.

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

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

 

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25 June 2014

What we can learn from Greenpeace's flying farrago...

epicfailIt 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.

 

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20 June 2014

My Generation (or the next...)?

Happy friends

I was speaking to a senior manager from a major company last week, a gent of a certain age on the brink of retirement, and I asked when he thought sustainability would be truly mainstreamed. And his reply?

"When your generation is in charge."

Scary thing is, it already is. Many of the most powerful in our country are my age or thereabouts. And many aren't covering themselves in glory, are they George Osborne?

Maybe the Millenials, who don't know life without kerbside recycling, will make the leap. Or my kids generation where hybrids, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels are perfectly normal, or...

 

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9 June 2014

Stay Hungry...

In Steve Jobs' legendary commencement speech to Stanford University students (above), he signed off with a maxim he first read in the proto-sustainability bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue, namely "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish."

In other words, keep searching for what you want to do and don't be afraid to try stuff and fail. When you succeed, don't stop, keeping going.

This is the opposite of the 'mid-table mediocrity' trap identified by the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We need to build on success, not rest on our laurels.

The CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent, put it nicely in a recent HBR interview when he talked of being 'constructively discontent' - taking a frame of mind that what you have achieved is never good enough, but in a way that puts other people off trying.

So how do you reward success, but keep people hungry - or constructively discontent?

One of my favourite approaches is competition - whether giving out awards for good performance, internal/external league tables and/or competitive tendering where the best sustainability performance is always rewarded. No-on wants to lose that no1 slot, or that Queen's Award, or lose a contract to a greener competitor. So they have to keep raising the bar - and so do their competitors.

And if you can bring a bit of the foolish into it, why not?

 

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4 June 2014

How do I get my CFO engaged in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I answer the tricky question "How do you get the Chief Finance Officer on board for sustainability?"

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here. Feel free to share or embed these videos - that's what they are there for.

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

 

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6 May 2014

What if your boss doesn't get Sustainability?

Opening eyes

Regular readers will know my opinion that the one difference between the best and the rest at sustainability (or any other organisational priority for that matter) is leadership. In fact I wrote a book about it - the Green Executive (available at all good on-line bookstores and even some real ones).

But what if your boss doesn't get it?

In my experience this rarely manifests itself as overt hostility, but more often as ambivalence or a slightly patronising punt into the long grass - "Yes, we really should do more on that, why don't you run along and write a report on it?"

All is not lost, however, there are some crafty ways of 'managing up' to get your boss's attention.

  • The killer question: how do we respond to compulsory carbon reporting? Here's our competitor's CSR report - how will we compete on this? Our energy bill is £2m pa - should we be tackling it?
  • Use Green Jujitsu to reframe sustainability to align it to company goals and other priorities. For example, a discussion of security of supply of raw materials could end up leading to circular economy solutions.
  • Volunteer them to give a presentation on sustainability: this may sound less than thrilling, but in the case of the late, great Ray Anderson of Interface such a request was the trigger for Mission Zero - probably the greatest corporate sustainability programme ever.
  • Develop a critical mass of activity demonstrating great results and then give them the opportunity to become the face of such success (see above).

What doesn't work is the standard default response - passive-aggressive indignation. Don't get mad, get clever!

 

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28 April 2014

Getting Skin in the Sustainability Game

rouletteI've written before about the need to get skin in the game for sustainability - to turn spectators into participants. Otherwise many of your colleagues will watch your efforts with mild curiosity without ever understanding that they have to actually do something. A much used, but pertinent quote comes from Marshall McLuhan:

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.

While that's the ideal, the difficult bit is getting people to understand how their decisions tie into sustainability. There are several techniques that can help:

  • Involvement: challenge people to come up with solutions in their sphere of operations;
  • Aligning systems: making sure the right people have the right responsibilities;
  • Leadership: people believe what they see, not what they read - active leadership will go a long way to help;
  • Branding: some of the best sustainability programmes - M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero and Unilever's Sustainable Living spring to mind - have really strong in your face branding to ram it home that "this is how we do things around here";
  • Training & awareness: this must be carried out at critical points eg induction.

Simple, eh?

 

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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?

File-Chuck_Norris_(1976)

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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