I 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.
Greenpeace 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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!
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!"
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.
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).
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.
...we want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet...
It was to these words, delivered in familiar stentorian tones, that I woke up this morning as the radio alarm kicked into life. My immediate reaction was "Obama won!" and then, secondly "This is the first big mention of climate change in the US election!"
During the campaign Obama referred to the green agenda only in terms of green jobs and energy security. Now in times of economic crisis this is a form of green jujitsu - framing the agenda in terms that appeal to the audience. Our own Prime Minister David Cameron does the same - happy to boast about record investment in renewables, but clearly unwilling to go back to his pre-crash husky-hugging vote-blue-go-green days.
But both can afford to be much, much bolder - and need to be given the speed of change required. In the UK, a third of all recent economic growth is coming from the green sector - a wave ready to be surfed by any political leader. Obama now has the luxury of the second term president - he can set his own agenda - and hopefully, hopefully he will put climate change centre stage and give much clearer leadership. And he may find that the solutions to the economic problems and the environmental problems are one and the same. Be bold!
Long before the phrase was demeaned by cheap TV talent shows, 'X Factor' referred to that difficult to ascertain quality that set the best ahead of the rest. For most entertainers the X Factor is the ability to project charisma to the audience. Everyone can learn to do this better, but obviously not everybody makes it to the top.
So what's the X Factor in sustainability? What single factor distinguishes those who are forging ahead from those stumbling in roughly the right direction? What would I bottle and sell if I could?
The answer is undoubtedly 'Leadership'.
It takes leadership to set ambitious targets.
It takes leadership to hold the organisation to those targets.
It takes leadership to identify and exploit new opportunities in the low carbon agenda.
It takes leadership to inspire employees to rise to the challenge.
It takes leadership to challenge those holding the organisation back.
It takes leadership to put a stop to unsustainable activities.
It takes leadership to redesign products and services from scratch for sustainability.
It takes leadership to kill off unsustainable product lines.
It takes leadership to remove people who are never going to get on board.
It takes leadership to build the supply chain you need.
It takes leadership to drag your peers and competitors along with you.
This is another reason why I can't stand the touchy-feely image of much of the corporate sustainability debate. Taking sustainability seriously is not about hugging trees, but facing up to a really tough corporate transformation mission. That's why I wrote a book, The Green Executive, about it.
"We haven't a hope in hell in meeting this target, but we're going to try anyway."
"The management redefined our target to one which we were going to meet anyway."
These are two real, if slightly paraphrased, quotes I have heard recently which show two polar opposite attitudes to sustainability targets in major corporations. Guess which one is doing better environmentally - and financially?
Odysseus famously lashed himself to the mast of his ship so he could hear the voices of the sirens whose song would seduce him onto the rocks, but wouldn't be able to give into them and change from his true course. Sustainability is difficult, I make no bones about it. But, as the Green Executive concluded, persistence is key. There is always the temptation to go easy on yourself and fall for the those siren voices and try and cheat the system - this usually fails as everyone can see such cheats a mile off.
Are you prepared to lash yourself to the mast and tough out the tough times? It's called leadership.
I diagnose the most common causes of failure of sustainability programmes as:
No leadership: leadership is critical to any successful corporate transformation programme and, given the scale of change required for sustainability, a lack of leadership commitment and drive will kill off sustainability programmes before they get going;
Lack of integration: “Green” and “sustainability” are seen as tangential issues to the mainstream business processes and get stuck in a green silo;
Misalignment of responsibility and authority: most environmental managers have lots of responsibility and precious little authority. Conversely people who have the power to push sustainability are given no responsibility to do so;
Lack of accountability: If you want to get somebody to do something, give them a target to hit and hold them to it. Make it a "must", not a "nice to have" - especially important for middle management;
Lack of ambition/wishful thinking: "We've appointed energy champions. Job done.";
Inertia: "We've always designed our products like that!";
Fear: “if we try this, who’ll get the blame if it goes wrong?”
You will notice that these are all about attitude and culture - very rarely is the real reason money. The true barrier to sustainability is about 6 inches wide - the space between our ears.
On Wednesday this week I launched my sustainability mastermind group with an inaugural meeting at the Baltic Art Gallery. We booked a third floor meeting room with stupendous views along the Tyne (see above) and worked through to lunch which we took in the sixth floor restaurant - this was delicious and accompanied by even better views!
The concept behind the mastermind group is to bring together a small group of sustainability practitioners from some of the country's largest organisations to explore sustainability in depth and share experiences and insights. We were operating under Chatham House rules so I'm not going to reveal who exactly was at the event, but here are a few of the key 'take homes' which arose from our discussions:
Need to reframe the argument from "environment or profit" to "environment and profit".
There is a need to focus on intent rather than process. The intention of, say, implementing ISO14001 is to improve environmental performance, not simply to achieve and maintain certification.
Likewise with targets, you need to focus on the purpose of the target, not simply meeting it.
If your business and sustainability targets are intertwined, why bother trying to separate them?
The political policy framework will always be uncertain, so you need to accept that fact and work with it. After all, we accept and manage the inherent uncertainty in markets.
If you have stretch target and you think you are never going to meet it, don't dilute it, redouble your efforts - that's where innovation can kick in.
On the other hand if you are meeting a target easily you should raise the bar, not sit on your laurels.
It is important to nurture personal passion for sustainability and not frustrate it.
Middle management is where green projects go to die. The answer is to work with HR to embed sustainability into job descriptions, personal targets, appraisals and personal development.
When delivering workshops, I normally adhere strictly to my timetable, but this time I took a "while the discussion is generating more nuggets of value, I'm not going to curtail it" approach. There were so many of those nuggets, we only got through half of the exercises I had planned out. For once I saw this as a sign of success.
I'm really looking forward to the next one!
If you are interested in the mastermind group and you are a senior practitioner within a large and/or asset-intensive business, then please drop me a line for more details. Places are limited.