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17 June 2016

What makes people make greener decisions?

world brainI'm coming to the end of one of my favourite ever projects – some research into what motivates a client's employees to make greener decisions. I started off with a review of the academic literature and what struck me was how inconsistent it was. I've just checked for any new academic papers published in the meantime, and I found the same. Every study or meta-study I read came up with different conclusions, which is very frustrating.

If I had to nominate the three, highly interlinked, factors I think make the most difference, I would plump for:

  1. Leadership: commitment flows from the top, and transformational leadership is required to deliver the scale of change required.
  2. Culture: few people will stride out on their own, they need to feel they have their peers at their side.
  3. Participation: directly involving people in Sustainability is the surefire method of getting them enthused and will give them a deeper understanding of the issues than any lunchtime lecture.

OK, that's just a gut instinct answer, but given the paucity of evidence from academia, it seems as good a guide as any.

What do you think?


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15 April 2016

Green Jujitsu at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange

I had a fantastic day out at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange at Harrogate yesterday. I used to be a regular facilitator at these events when they toured the country between 2010-2012 and I loved them as they promoted discussion over presentation and everybody learnt from each other. In fact the round table format was a formative influence on the design of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group.

Yesterday, I gave a speech on Green Jujitsu as a better approach to employee engagement. I took a (slightly noisy) recording which you can hear here:

Audio MP3

I also facilitated a session on 'getting colleagues on board', and the conclusions were:

  • Match language to audience
  • Legacy is a strong driver for CEOs
  • Peer pressure works
  • No evangelism
  • Middle management need formal objectives
  • Awards attract attention
  • Let colleagues pitch pet projects – the best get implemented
  • Give targets branding (even 'characters') to make them easy to communicate
  • Removing barriers is as important as new ventures;
  • Human interest stories beat case studies
  • Stretch targets grab attention

If much of that sounds familiar, one of the delegates had read Green Jujitsu and was quoting from it at length!


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8 April 2016

In Sustainability, "Everybody's Responsibility" = "Nobody's Responsibility"

what can I do

As regular readers, will know, as well as my day job as sustainability consultant/pontificator, I have another day job which fits round it of local councillor. A subset of that job is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Opposition Spokesman on Sustainability Issues.

Now, while I keep this blog free of partisan party political stuff, it is fair to say that when my party lost control of the Council back in 2011, Sustainability has dropped from a first tier priority down to the third tier of "other things we should really do". But in the last few months, it has suddenly bubbled back to the second tier, much to my delight – I finally have something to scrutinise.

While the new initiative is quite good, the thing that bothers me is that the responsibility for it is really unclear. Two of the ten Cabinet members have formal responsibility for climate change, but the new initiative was led in the press by a third, and a fourth member presented the report on the new initiative.

When challenged as to who was 'it', the answer was the same one we hear across many organisations. "We are trying to make sustainability everybody's responsibility." That line always reminds me of the old story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody...

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

As I have argued many times, professionally and politically, somebody has to show responsibility from a leadership point of view. Somebody has to be driving that change, somebody has to stand up and defend progress (or lack of it), somebody has to be the 'face' of sustainability.

With my clients, I always recommend:

  1. There must be clear and visible leadership at both an executive and an operational level;
  2. Responsibility for sustainability in key middle management positions should not be left to chance – sustainability KPIs should be translated for those job roles and embedded into personal objectives;
  3. Once those formal roles are set, "everybody's responsibility" can be delivered through peer networks and employee engagement – but you should have no doubts that it is unlikely to deliver more than reasonable incremental change.





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29 February 2016

No Leadership, No Sustainability

green superhero

I'm working on two major client projects at the minute, one on sustainability strategy and one on employee engagement – which between them make up the essentials of delivering sustainability, the formal process and the buy-in from all stakeholders. But there's one subject which keeps bubbling to the fore in both – Leadership.

Without leadership, any ambitious sustainability targets will remain just ink on a page or pixels on a screen. The level of change required, the investment called for, the new business directions – none of this will happen without the process being driven from the top.

Without leadership, employees will simply not engage with the subject – whatever we might say, we look to our leaders for inspiration and direction. If leaders aren't leading then we drift back to business as usual.

As an aside, I've always been slightly baffled that my first book, The Three Secrets of Green Business, which is oriented to operational practicalities, has always outsold my second, The Green Executive, which is aimed at the emerging generation of sustainability business leaders. Especially as it has 18 exclusive interviews with pioneers in the field, making sustainability happen at a leadership level. It's a much more important book.

Because, at the end of the day, it's a matter of no leadership, no sustainability.



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13 January 2016

Look forward, not back, Mr Cameron

Rethinking Government Assistance: David CameronTwice in recent weeks, UK prime minister David Cameron has answered questions on green issues with a simple and superficially impressive statistic:

98% of solar panels in the UK have been installed while I've been Prime Minister.

Now that may be strictly true, but I'm sure it generated howls of anguish from the two Lib Dem energy and climate change secretaries who had to fight tooth and nail to keep renewables on the agenda during the coalition government when this solar surge happened.

The other problem with this approach is that it's justification of the past rather than true leadership for the future. We need our leaders to set out the direction and magnitude of change (the sustainability 'vector' as my client Sean Axon of Johnson Matthey likes to put it). UK private and public sector organisations are not getting the signals they needs to deliver sustainability. Some are forging their own way, others paying lip service like the PM, others not even bothering with that.

Leadership matters – with just a couple of years left to leave a legacy, Cameron should emulate Barack Obama in the twilight of his presidency and stick his neck out.


Photo copyright by World Economic Forum by Remy Steinegger

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2 December 2015

Nobody does it better

Interface Gala Dinner

I'm in Scherpenzeel in the middle of the Netherlands for one particular reason: it's the base of Interface's European operations and the location for the company's Mission Zero Sustainability Ambassadors Summit. I'm doing a piece of work for Interface Europe on employee engagement, so I'm here on a watching brief to get a better understanding of how Interface gets it so right.

In particular, I am really intrigued as to how the Ambassador programme is the only green champion programme I have come across which really delivers. Most sustainability champion networks crumble into poorly-attended whinging shops, to the extent that I never recommend clients set one up and, if they already have, I usually challenge them as to why they did. The Ambassador programme is clearly different and my undercover mission is to work out why.

The summit kicked off last night with a fabulous gala dinner (above) and a couple of things really jumped out at me:

1. Leadership: Interface founder and Mission Zero instigator Ray Anderson may have been dead for 4 years, but his spirit clearly lives on. Rob Boogaard, CEO of Interface Europe, gave a really powerful speech, leaving no doubt that he sees Mission Zero and Interface's business strategy as pretty much one and the same.

2. No half measures: you don't become a Mission Zero Ambassador just because you were the only one from your office to turn up to a lunchtime meeting. No, at Interface you have to go through a multi-layer training programme and have to deliver an assignment before you achieve that status. And I mean status – it's more like earning a belt in a martial art than joining a bunch of volunteers.

3. Restless ambition: the vibe at the dinner was "well done, we're very proud of you, what are you going to do next?" Laurels were certainly not being sat on.

The word that came to mind as we boarded the bus back to our hotel was authenticity. These guys say what they mean and mean what they say. It's for real.


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11 November 2015

Leadership, Sustainability & Visibility

bowlerI'm very proud to be working on a project with the world leaders on corporate sustainability, Interface. The results of this work will be made public next year, but it is very clear from my many interactions with Interface employees and stakeholders that Ray Anderson, the founder of the company and its Mission Zero sustainability programme, is still held in highest regard some four years after his death.

I follow a couple of twitter feeds who supply inspiring business and management quotes (I like a good quote, even if many are misattributed) and one caught my eye this morning:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves ~ Lao Tzu

Now I know I'm walking on thin ice criticising the (purported) author of the Tao Te Ching, but is this always the case?

On one level I understand the need to get individuals to claim ownership of sustainability issues, solve them and take credit for the results. But 'barely know he exists'? We look to our leaders to show us the direction of travel, for permission to act and for permission to fail. Otherwise every organisation could run itself.

I certainly don't think Interface could have gone through the radical transformation it has over the last two decades without Ray Anderson nailing his colours to the mast. And where Interface has led, competitors and other industries have followed. Visible leadership matters in sustainability.


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8 October 2015

Sustainability and the The UK's Conference Season

cam huskie splitEach year, I analyse the UK political leaders' conference speeches to gauge their party's commitment to green issues. My theory is that the leaders' speeches are a much better indicator of the priority the parties give sustainability than those of their environmental/energy spokespeople. In my analysis I have disregarded any glib statements and attacks on political rivals. Instead I try to focus on positive proposals and/or visions for a sustainable future.

So, in chronological order:

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrats

Given the beating the Lib Dems took at this year's General Election, new leader Tim Farron had to make an impact and certainly surprised a few with his oratory (usual disclosure: I'm a Lib Dem and I know Tim quite well). While most of the green elements of the speech involved knocking the Tory Government for dismantling policies the Lib Dems put in place in the previous coalition, he put sustainability at the centre of his economic vision:

The heart of [the future] economy will be green industries: renewable energy, low-carbon transport, green finance – all areas in which Britain is already a world leader.

There are more offshore wind turbines around our coasts than everywhere else in the rest of the world put together.

These industries are making products and technologies which a decarbonised world will want to buy. They will bring jobs, exports and prosperity and at same time reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

Natalie Bennett, Green Party

As you would expect, the environment featured widely in the Green Party leader's speech, but most of it concerned either what the Green Party was against (fracking, coal bed gasification, nuclear power) or how rubbish everybody else was at tackling green problems. In terms of policy, Bennett pushed addressing fuel poverty and a 'small is beautiful' vision for the economy:

The Green Party has long championed treating our homes as the critical national infrastructure that they are – a plan to lift nine out of 10 households out of fuel poverty, to create at least 100,000 jobs, and cut carbon emissions. Not bad for just one Green policy!

The Green Party has long demanded investment in public transport, not the botched, illogical HS2, but local and regional schemes that help to rebalance our economy, linked to local bus services under the controlling hand of local councils. Such a transport policy would not only tackle congestion and air pollution, but also help to cut the NHS bill for dealing with obesity and diabetes. Not bad for just one Green policy!

And we've long understood that the only secure, sustainable economic future is based in strong local economies, with local needs met by local suppliers, with a rich ecology of farming, manufacturing and services businesses supporting each other.

Nigel Farage, UKIP

Following a general election where they racked up millions of votes yet only won a single seat, the UKIP conference was the most combustible with public shouting matches between major figures. UKIP have never pretended to be green and the sole reference to climate and industry in Farage's speech was "[The EU's] climate change obsession has destroyed industry across Europe." Moving swiftly on...

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party

The new leader of the Labour Party was a surprise (not least to himself) – a 30 year veteran of the left. Never known as an orator, Corbyn's ramshackle delivery was rescued by the fact that we knew he genuinely meant every word he said. However, his sole green policy proposal was a rehash of an old, recently ditched one, and didn't come with any detail attached.

A Green New Deal investing in renewable energy and energy conservation to tackle the threat of climate change.

David Cameron, Conservative Party

The Prime Minister gave a quite extraordinary speech to his party faithful, driving his tanks not just into the centre ground, but arguably into the centre-left. However, this didn't include what would be to me the obvious target, climate change and the green economy with the former getting an oblique reference and the latter nothing. As one pundit put it, plenty of 'hug a hoodie', no 'hug a husky'.


So, from a sustainability point of view, the leaders' speeches were rather depressing, with only Farron and Bennett having anything of substance to say and them having but 9 MPs between them. The choice between those two is the 'small is beautiful' idealism of the Greens and the 'green growth' vision of the Lib Dems.


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21 September 2015

Is there any mileage in unethical business?

vwIt's well known that car makers use all kinds of tricks to bump up the apparent fuel efficiency of their vehicles (surely easily sorted by the authorities with a little effort), but the revelation that VW had engineered their diesel cars to only switch on emissions controls when they are being tested beggars belief. The company faces fines up to $18bn in the US, an expensive recall programme and untold reputational damage.

As an engineer, it pains me that (presumably) a whole bunch of engineers were in on this scam. They would've been much better off putting all that effort into creating engines which meet standards and give great performance.

The VW boss Martin Winterkorn has ordered an 'external investigation' into the scandal, but the question he needs to ask himself is how he let a culture develop where this kind of thing was deemed acceptable.


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25 August 2015

When we need constancy on Climate Change, we get inconsistency

ObamaA slew of dissonant news items have hit our eyeballs in recent weeks:

  • President Obama launching tough carbon reduction regulations for power stations, then approving oil drilling in the Arctic;
  • Shell's signing up to a climate change resolution to report on how its activities will contribute to reducing temperature rises to 2°C, then starting oil exploration in the Arctic;
  • UK, Energy & Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd making a fine speech on the economic impact of climate change (gist: the right should be as worried as the left), while dismantling many renewable energy/energy efficiency incentives in favour of shale gas.

I have long argued that leadership is key to sustainability. If our leaders aren't acting, then a majority of us won't act. According to academic leadership guru Warren Bennis, one of the key elements in whether we trust our leaders is constancy – "the quality of being faithful and dependable" (see my book The Green Executive for more). Contradictory actions lead to cognitive dissonance which in turn leads to confusion and dismay.

Whether we are leading the free world, a mega-corporation, a start-up or a community group, people expect constancy from us. And, crucially, they will judge it by gut instinct, not by an intellectual argument. Constancy isn't easy, and you'll never manage it 100% of the time, but you need to get the big calls right.


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15 July 2015

What's the X Factor in Sustainability Leadership?

green superhero

I've often said leadership is the difference between the best and the rest in sustainability, but of course there's leadership and there's leadership. Management boffins sometimes categorise three different styles (in order of increasing effectiveness):

  1. Laissez-faire: no real leadership – organisation is allowed to drift;
  2. Transactional: business as usual with interventions only to fix problems;
  3. Transformational: visionary leadership with all resources focussed on meeting the vision.

If we apply that model down to the narrower field of sustainability leadership, it is clear that the big names – the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Sir Stuart Rose at M&S, Paul Polman at Unilever, Jeff Immelt at GE – you can see all the fingerprints of transformational leadership.

If that's the best, then most of the organisations I come across are in the transactional level. They may have gained buy-in to launch a programme and get the CEO to write a bland introduction to the annual report, but there's no drive from the top. Nobody is asking "Why aren't we the best in our sector in sustainability?" Nobody is writing a big cheque. And they get incremental improvements at best,

The difficult bit of course is getting from here to there as it has to come from within the leader – here's how I do it!



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5 June 2015

Sustainability is BORING!

broing training

This week I delivered a sustainability workshop for the executive team of one of my longstanding clients. Engaging at this level is tough – these guys are at the pinnacle of their organisation and they didn't get there by being dupes. And they are used to questioning everything, you can't get away with generalisations or platitudes. Tough, but I like the challenge.

As we started off, the default position was, at best, cautious:

"What do we need to do to keep out of jail?"

"We shouldn't do anything which isn't cost effective."

"The new Government doesn't seem to be prioritising this."

By the end, however, the executive had decided to make the already challenging proposed targets significantly more ambitious, to drive forward work on renewable energy and were throwing around some quite radical ideas on their business model (so radical I wasn't allowed to take them out of the seminar room!) There was no sudden tipping point, but as we explored the issues, the attitude shifted decisively from being warily reactive to boldly proactive.

During the wash-up session, I mused on this change. One participant shot straight back:

"Sustainability sounds so boring – it just isn't an inspiring word. But, as soon as we started getting stuck into the issues, it turned out to be really fascinating!"

This was music to my ears as my whole approach to engagement is to get people properly involved, working out for themselves what sustainability means to them and their organisation. I don't tell people what to think – least of all senior managers. From the moment I walked up to the flipchart, pen in hand, and asked "Why should you take sustainability seriously?" I got them to do all the work, selling sustainability to themselves.

Classic green jujitsu, in other words.



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3 June 2015

Greetings from Bristol, European Green Capital


I'm down in Bristol for a couple of days to deliver a senior management/director sustainability workshop for one of our long-standing clients. I worked in this City for a couple of months about 20 years ago (gulp) but this is my first proper visit since then – I've only used it as a staging point in the meantime. The big news here, of course, is that the City won the European Green Capital for 2015.

I'm quite jealous as, with my Councillor hat on, I helped steer my adopted city, Newcastle upon Tyne, to the top of the now-defunct Sustainable Cities Index run by Forum for the Future in 2009 and 2010 – beating Bristol and other cities with a green reputation such as Brighton. We had been sizing up a Green Capital bid just before the electorate consigned me to the opposition benches and I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Stockholm learning from other interested cities across Europe and gauging the competition. The incoming Council administration submitted a bid and fell well short, having pooh-poohed my advice that we would need to up our game to compete. It took Bristol three attempts to get it, so I wasn't wrong.

What I found from the Sustainable Cities experience is that these really high profile awards are surprisingly good at creating forward momentum. The old cliché "success has many fathers, failure is an orphan" was all too true – all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to claim credit through what were sometimes tenuous links, but we let them join the celebrations without getting arsey about it and used it to get them to actually do something.

Bristol is taking an similarly inclusive approach, asking organisations to sign a pledge in order to take part. The pledge isn't that onerous, which is a good thing – a high bar would simply lead most to sit back and do nothing. Once you get them engaged, you can use the momentum of participation to encourage them forward.

But the key success factor in sustainability is the same as it is in any organisation, country or community – leadership. Newcastle topped the Sustainable Cities Index because of the leadership of my colleague and cabinet member Cllr Wendy Taylor. After the change in political control, sustainability was dropped from the Council's priority list and the City's reputation has faded. In Bristol, Mayor and architect George Ferguson has put his reputation on the line to win the European Capital status and he and his red trousers have been at the forefront of the bid.

Leadership makes all the difference. That's what I'm working on for our client. In the meantime, I'll take a wander around the City and see if I can spot the poo-bus.


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1 June 2015

For Blatter or Worse

muddy footballAnother week, another massive ethical scandal – this time the curtain has been drawn back on the seething pit of corruption that is Fifa with the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of its annual meeting. More arrests are expected.

Most people would have expected more heads to roll, but at the meeting Fifa president Sepp Blatter was easily re-elected and immediately cast himself as a reformer.

Now, as a number of people have pointed out (for example Vivek Chaudhary), Blatter has largely been a force for good in world football – opening up the cosy European cartels and making it a truly world game. In particular he has shifted cash from the wealthy leagues into those in developing countries and delivered the first World Cup Finals in Asia and Africa.

But, as I have argued over and over again, culture flows from leadership. There is no way such endemic corruption could have taken root in the organisation without, at the very least, the tolerance of the man at the top. No matter what good he has done, justice requires Blatter should go and let someone else take over the reins. Otherwise nothing will change.


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28 May 2015

The dumbest guys in the room

Last week, I finally caught "The Smartest Guys in the Room" – the story of the Enron scandal. If you have an interest in business ethics or corporate social responsibility, it is a damning tale of greed, egotism and self-delusion.

Imagine the culture in an organisation where the (perceived) weakest 15% of employees are fired each year. Where the organisation can report profits on energy projects which haven't even been built (or sometimes never were). Where people can be given multi-million dollar bonus for those imaginary profits. In such a poisonous environment, you can imagine that organisation deliberately withholding energy to the State of California until blackouts to push up electricity prices, so they can sell that energy at a premium.

And the extraordinary thing is how many people went along with it. The documentary referenced the Milgram experiments where ordinary people were persuaded to administer dangerous electric shocks to screaming actors (I had never seen the footage of these legendary and terrifying sessions before - truly harrowing).

And how did it end? In tears. The house of cards collapsed, the authorities started investigating and, of the two smartest guys in the room, Jeff Skilling went to jail and Kenneth Lay died awaiting his fate. In a word: Dumb.

But the lesson is, once again, culture beats everything else and culture flows from the top.


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13 May 2015

Practising what you (don't) preach

This month's Ask Gareth considers a corker of a question from Staffordshire University's Dave Moreman: "How can you ask others to behave more sustainably when your own lifestyle is far from perfect?"

Do you agree with my views or disagree? Have you any great examples? Please add your views & experiences in the comments below.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth here.


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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


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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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Learn how to help your business go green from the comfort of your desk..

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By Gareth Kane

Everything you need to know to integrate sustainability into the DNA of your business.

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By Gareth Kane

A highly accessible, practical guide to those who want to introduce sustainability into their business or organization quickly and effectively.

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By Gareth Kane

The smart way to engage effectively with employees

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