A very topical question for this month's Ask Gareth – what will happen to Sustainability in the age of Donald Trump? I offer three important principles to make sure short term political upsets don't derail your Sustainability programme.
Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.
A tweet appeared on my twitter feed yesterday urging people to buy loose fruit and veg to avoid packaging waste. However loose veg leads to 20% higher wastage than packaged veg, so while you might save on a plastic bag (you're going to need a container to get them home anyway, even a paper bag has an impact), you're going to be responsible for 20% more land-use, 20% more irrigation and fertilisation, 20% more washing and processing, 20% more transport and 20% more waste. I haven't done the sums, but I'm guessing the packaged fruit comes out on top by a country mile. Excess packaging is wrong of course, but we package goods for a very good reason.
You get similar simplistic thinking about bottled water. Now I try to remember to take tap water out with us on family trips (Mrs K is much better at this than me), but if I don't have any and I have to buy a drink from a shop, which is more eco-friendly – bottled water or a soft drink (= bottled water + sugar + chemicals)? I've seen people buy a coke rather than water on this basis - madness.
This simplistic good/evil demarcation in the environmental world is potentially damaging. The anti-nuclear move in Germany has propped up the coal-fired power sector. As Mark Lynas points out, the vilification of carbon offsetting by green commentators has almost certainly had a negative impact by cutting off a flow of finance into green projects.
These issues aren't particularly complicated but the dogmatic mantras of some campaigners can do more harm than good. Let's think before acting.
We had a great Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group Meeting last Friday - I'll post more this Friday (I'm still writing the session up). But one comment really stuck with me over the weekend:
"The realisation that I didn't need everybody's buy-in, just the buy-in of those who matter [in this case], was really liberating, it really made the task achievable."
As I keep saying, the biggest barrier to Sustainability is the space between our ears. That applies just as much to practitioners as non-practitioners. We all get hidebound by self-limiting beliefs such as 'we have to get everybody bought into this' – Sustainability is difficult enough without placing (almost) impossible hoops to jump through along the way.
I recently posted 10 such self-limiting beliefs on a LinkedIn article which has attracted quite a bit of attention, most of it positive but some commentators are still wedded to ideals and political dogma over practicalities. That won't help them or anybody else move towards Sustainability.
This week I read an article on employee engagement for Sustainability on a well-known eco-business website (I won't bother linking to protect the guilty), wondering if it had a new angle, a nice case study or a clever technique I hadn't come across before. Unfortunately the piece could have been written 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – we had 'switch it off' stickers and posters on the walls when I started in the Civil Service in 1993.
Here's a thing – if it hasn't worked in the last 23 years, why would it start working now?
This approach is so old hat, I parodied it in an animation 3 and a half years ago. We have so much more sophisticated approaches including gamification, 'nudge' techniques and my own Green Jujitsu (translating Sustainability for the worldview of each audience) that you would have thought that a half-competent environmental consultancy may have come across (hint: try Google). But apparently not.
To deliver Sustainability, we need new thinking across the board. Whether that is managing distributed energy, developing new business models or effective employee engagement; blindly trying the same old technique whether or not it works is the epitome of stupidity. One of the joys of working in Sustainability is learning something new every day – revel in it!
Have you ever noticed how much you notice when you are on holiday? Wander around a strange place and details leap out at you in a way they never do in your home town. There's a whole genre of travel writing based on such observations, but you rarely, if ever, get anyone writing in such detail about their own neighbourhood (Xavier de Maistre famously wrote Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre to parody travel writing). Familiarity closes our minds, travel broadens them.
I was reminded of this when a client recently told me it was great to get a fresh pair of eyes (mine!) in to sort out a couple of sticking points in his corporation's sustainability strategy. One of the most important things an outsider can do, as I did in this case, is question implicit assumptions – the way your mind closes down options subconsciously. I now do more coaching and facilitation than traditional 'clipboard consulting' as this broadening of the mind can make an order of magnitude greater impact than a report of recommendations gathering dust on somebody's shelf.
How are you going to get yourself out of your comfort zone today?
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
I was at a meeting of the Green Thinkers book club last night. We were discussing Prof Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" book published on the run up to the Paris talks last December. I was actually going to review the book here, but to be honest it's not a great piece of work, seemingly rushed out to give an alternative view to the Australian Government's official line during the talks (Flannery was head of the Australian Climate Commission which was abolished by the incoming Abbott Government in 2013). But the curious thing is that, contrary to the title, it's quite a depressing read.
Appropriately, the discussion around tackling climate change split amongst the pessimists and the optimists. For the former, we're royally screwed by a toxic cocktail of greed, capitalism and corruption. For the latter, of which regular readers will guess I'm a life member, we have to utilise technology, capitalism and design to deliver a massive transformation.
We sustainability optimists are not naive about the scale of the problem, rather we use that as a spur to go further, faster. We are trying to build a vision of a glorious sustainable future, not trying to scare people into action. We use all the tools at our disposal – including the power of global capitalism to bring economies of scale to green technologies.
And, if we fail, it won't be for lack of trying.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” – H.Keller
Have you ever tried making a complaint to a large organisation? You'll get a whole load of guff back about how they take every concern seriously, explaining the process they will follow and what do you almost certainly get by the end? A half acknowledgement that they got something wrong and a convoluted explanation of why they're not going to do a damn thing about it.
Just this morning I presented a large committee (unrelated to my professional career) with photographic evidence of a serious local problem along with other evidence as to the cause. Others around the table simply talked away the problem (with no counter evidence, just anecdote, opinion and subject changing) until it was implicitly agreed that while this was indeed an issue, there was no real need to do anymore than the current, evidently inadequate actions. Next agenda item...
This frustrates the hell out of me, but more seriously, when you look at huge scandals such as the child abuse in the Catholic Church, the emissions cheating in the car industry, or the prevalence of doping in Lance Armstrong-era professional cycling, the herd will always close ranks to see off any perceived threat. The logical knots that groups of people will tie themselves in to avoid uncomfortable truths is astonishing. We are herd animals and the instinct to run with and defend the herd is very strong – which is why whistleblowers get ostracised when they do stand up and say "this isn't right!"
This is one reason why trying to bring sustainability into large organisations is so difficult. Of course the trick is to get the herd moving in the direction you need it to move, but believing that this direction is the best way to go – what I call Green Jujitsu.
And more importantly, if you did, will you do it again today?
Did you reach out to other people?
If so, what do you think they'll do differently today? And tomorrow?
Doing something environmentally friendly for one day is pointless – just a drop in the ocean to make us feel good. That's why I think all these multifarious green weeks, days and hours do more harm than good. We think we are 'raising awareness', we think we are achieving something, we feel good about it, but how much effort does it use up? How much of it speaks to those outside the green movement? How much difference does it make long term?
For sustainability, every day has to be World Environment Day, and not just consciously, but subconsciously too.
So, I've conformed to type. Just a few weeks after turning 45, I went out and bought a carbon fibre road bike – one which I cannot really justify in terms of either affordability or ability. But I had to have one. And I got one. And I love it. I am a MAMIL.
I've also entered the 64-mile Cyclone Sportive in a couple of weeks time. With young kids it's hard to get training in, but I'm determined to do so, both to get used to the new bike and get my legs used to some work. I took this morning off and did 37 miles (plus coffee/cake stop, above), rushing back for a small child handover (it's half term). Mrs K is very bemused by all this, in a reasonably tolerant way.
"You'll get round fine." she said as we compared diaries for some more training slots.
"Yes, but I want to get round in style." I shot back.
As I pedalled I mulled on the parallels between getting by and excelling in cycling and in Sustainability. Some organisations take the "What's the minimum we can do to keep out of jail?" approach, others aim for mid-table mediocrity, but the best take great pleasure in striving for excellence. They don't just want to meet their targets, they want to raise the bar and do it in style. I want to enjoy my sportive, and I want to do, for me, an excellent time, not just get round.
You can scale these mindsets up to the global level – when we achieve Sustainability, do we want to be surviving or thriving? I saw a mind map on LinkedIn yesterday whose underlying assumption is that we need to get rid of plastic. I countered that plastic gives us many great things – lightweight fuel-efficient vehicles (including road bikes), packaging which cuts food waste and almost every household appliance – rather we need to phase out plastic waste.
In fact, if you followed all the suggestions on the mind map to the letter, we'd be back in the days of subsistence farming – scraping an existence. How are you going to sell that to the public? How are you going to sell that to me, for goodness sake?
You'll never sell a hair shirt (and why would you want to?), we've got to sell a compelling vision of humanity thriving in a sustainable future. So let's do Sustainability and lets do it in style!
About five years ago, there seemed to be a new sustainability concept coming over the horizon every 5 minutes: the circular economy, creating shared value, mindful sustainability, my own green jujitsu and the doomed-by-its-own-name endosymbiotic thrivability – everytime you clicked on a green business website, another idea leapt out at you. These neologisms were on top of already bulging toolbox of existing ideas including natural capitalism, cradle-to-cradle, bethinking the natural step, one planet living, factor 4/10/100 etc, etc.
Suddenly all of this blue-sky thinking seems to have died away, replaced by practical efforts to take Sustainability forward at scale. I'd argue this is a sign of maturity with the Sustainability baton being handed over from the thinkers to the doers.
We now know what we have to do, the challenge is doing it.
In complex systems such as the global temperatures, we see long term trends (climate in this case), overlaid with short term fluctuations (weather). Those who seek to play down the dangers of climate change like to find short term patterns in the weather that appear to back their hunches, while ignoring the inconvenient truth of the big picture.
The importance of following the signal of long terms trends and ignoring the short term noise applies to the politics of sustainability. The need to fill sustainability blogs, news websites, podcasts and the rest can lead to an obsession about stuff outside our control: what will Brexit mean for sustainability? A Trump presidency? A corporate buy-out? I've seen such thinking paralysing organisations, bogging down progress on Sustainability in what-ifs.
The sports psychologist Steve Peters trains his clients to separate worries into two piles: stuff you can't control and stuff you can. If you can control it, deal with it, if you can't, accept it and move on. Great advice for all of us!
Here are some of the excuses I've heard over the last couple of years not to move forward on a Sustainability project or strategy:
We're selling part/all of the business
We're buying a new business
We're in financial difficulty
The boss has been sacked
I've got a new boss, don't know what his position on this is
We're writing our annual sustainability report
It's not a good time to ask the boss
I'm too busy
Now, I'm not knocking any of these reasons – they're all pressures we all feel at different times. But given the overwhelming evidence to link strong Sustainability performance with strong business performance (eg here), why wouldn't you prioritise Sustainability?
The problem is the annoyingly persistent old mindset of "Sustainability costs you more" when we should be thinking "Sustainability is an engine of growth." Change the mindset and the problem becomes a solution.
I was once solemnly informed "We won't get to Sustainability without Mindfulness."
If you don't know what Mindfulness is, it's apparently "the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment." And it's all the rage.
My response to my pious friend was "Why not?"
He struggled to answer that one. Maybe I wasn't being accepting enough.
And the more I think about it, the more I think he's 100% wrong.
We cannot function as human beings if we have to be entirely conscious of everything we do - we'd spend all our time focussing on breathing and walking and sitting so much we'd never do anything else. If we require a conscious focus on every sustainability-related decision every day, it'll never be fully integrated into our routines. You can only focus on one thing at a time.
Much better to take the sustainable option by default, by habit or because it's the path of least resistance. We need to design our world so you don't even have to think about sustainability - it just happens.
Frankly, I think we have to be more mindful of nonsensical pronouncements that aren't properly thought through.
In my book The Green Executive, I concluded that three personal qualities were required of green business leaders: resilience, a bias to action and enthusiasm. Since the book was published back in May, I've interacted with several hundred employees of different clients from widely different roles and backgrounds and I'm starting to see an important fourth quality emerge: creativity.
Why have I spotted it now and not earlier? Well, firstly I am doing more workshops than ever and secondly my workshops have evolved to become less and less about me talking and more and more about the delegates thinking. And you can clearly tell the creative types in the room: some people struggle to break away from the realities of their day to day activities, but others relish the opportunity to step back and be curious, letting their mind take them on a journey of discovery.
Watching a truly creative person at work can be quite extraordinary. I've seen two people who have no background in sustainability propose the rather advanced concept of product-service systems as a sustainability solution within a 20 minute exercise - working it out from first principles. I've found a simple discussion on sustainability touch on the second law of thermodynamics (I usually avoid the thermodynamic argument as too philosophical in an hour's workshop). And I've seen people bring in ideas from completely different fields of endeavour and apply them inventively to sustainability.
Breaking free from the 'tyranny of the present' is a prerequisite of sustainability - we're not going to achieve sustainability by doing the same thing, but a little bit greener. We need innovative, lateral thinking type solutions and those will inevitably come from creative minds. The challenge for organisations is how to identify, harness and nurture these creatives. The 'champion' route is one way, but make sure you make the role meaningful. Task groups are better when you have a particular issue to address as there is a clear objective and purpose.
Part of me is really jealous of these people, but more than that I love working with them. They challenge me, they stimulate me and they astound me. They certainly make my job a lot more interesting.