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23 July 2014

Mind the Credibility Gap

ants bridge

I'm continuing to plough my way through the background information from a sustainability training course I'm reviewing for a client and it's throwing up all kinds of interesting nuggets. One sustainability primer produced by a major NGO caught my eye.

The first section was a description of different sustainability definitions - the Brundtland definition, The Natural Step and the Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model. All very high level and philosophical.

The second section said the starting point of tackling sustainability was to engage stakeholders, with some good suggestions of who to consult and how to go about it.

And the third section said... um, well, no, there was no third section. That was it.

So this primer told us we face humongous, existential challenges and have to completely redesign the way we think about society, but the only tool it gave us to tackle them is a suggestion to talk to people we know about it.

I had an immediate flashback to the Live Earth concerts in 2007 where we were given apocalyptic accounts of the potential impacts of climate change - and then urged to turn of our phone chargers at night to 'do our bit.' Or all those books which describe the world's problems in great detail and then in the last chapter offer incredibly vague and untested solutions to actually solve them.

People aren't daft. If you tell them there's a huge problem but proffer trivial or ill-defined solutions, they simply won't believe you are credible - and rightly so.

If you want to tackle sustainability properly - whether at a global level or in an organisation - you not only have to describe the problem but to break it down into its constituent parts and sketch out solutions which are commensurate with the problem such as the circular economy, smart grid technology, the digital economy, etc etc etc.

It's good to talk - and I make a living out of it - but make sure you don't fall into the credibility gap by having nothing meaningful to talk about.


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11 June 2014

Sustainability for Real People

family blossom

As I write, I'm half way through an 8 day stint of solo-parenting our three boys - and, boy, am I exhausted. With the little one still at the nappy and Calpol stage, and the middle one still demanding quite a bit of attention, it's a flat out effort to keep food on the table, dishes done, cleanish clothes on them, and some semblance of order in the house. By the time they're all bathed, regaled with stories and in bed in the evening, I'm beat - and facing a load of chores just to be ready for the morning.

A couple of years ago, I tried out a 'sustainable living' programme run by a high-profile not-for-profit - partly because of a position I held at the time, and partly to see how other people do engagement. The idea of the programme was to monitor your waste and energy usage and then share ideas on-line on how to reduce those impacts.

Reader, I flunked it completely.

The problem was even the small effort required to weigh and record each load of waste going to the bins was at least doubling the time taken to perform this task. And in our house, if it takes twice as long to do something differently, then it doesn't happen. OK, I might manage once or twice, but if you have a teething child screaming at you, dinner is on the hob and the bin is starting to stink, that bag of waste goes out fast. My data quickly became so patchy it was a joke, so I packed it in.

And I think that summarises the problem with the attitude of much of the activist end of the environmental movement - and even the Government programmes such as the UK's Green Deal. They assume that people have, or should find, the time, inclination and energy to sacrifice on sustainability. A sizeable minority may do it, but for the majority, other pressures - or pleasures - will take priority.

The best way to do sustainability for real people is to make it as easy as 'normal' behaviour, if not easier. Failing that, make it more fun, cheaper, or more status-enhancing, whatever - just make it better. And, if you are looking to test a sustainability idea for practicality, can I blearily suggest a single parent might be the ultimate target audience...


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10 March 2014

Ranting & Raving Won't Get You Anywhere

Angry manager

All of us know somebody who has an obsession about something or other. Every time you speak to them, you know that the topic's going to come back to that issue sooner or later. So what do you do? You try and get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. Does the obsessor have a point? Who knows? It isn't worth anybody's while to stop and find out.

Large chunks of the green movement fall into the same trap. Believing that they are right (often about everything), self appointed activists believe it is their mission to keep up a constant barrage of pressure/slogans/abuse. If the target of this campaign clamps their hands over their ears, it's the fault of the target rather than the campaigner.

The roots of my Green Jujitsu approach to engagement were witnessing what works (working to strengths) and what doesn't (pressure, insults, abuse). The clever pressure groups tap into the natural competitiveness of business leaders by publishing league tables of sustainability performance like Greenpeace's electronics firm rankings. Likewise I found that getting engineers to develop sustainable solutions was much more effective than throwing a guilt trip at them. As Socrates says, you should speak the language of your audience, not the one that resonates with you.

This takes a strange brew of humility and guile - to work out what your audience's 'buttons' are and how to press them. To get what you want, you have to first think about what they want.


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17 July 2013

The Struggle for Sustainability

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

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

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

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

Your can use the following tactics to overcome institutional inertia:

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

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

Photo: Greenpeace


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19 April 2013

Who's for yet another environmental awareness week?

CalendarApparently it's Responsible Business Week.

And Earth Week.

And Work Zone Awareness Week, National Beanpole Week, Bowel Cancer Awareness Week, Parkinson's Awareness Week, Depression Awareness Week, World Voice Day, World Haemophilia Day etc, etc, etc.

Please, please, spare us from more me-too 'awareness raising'. It is just lazy copycat activity for activity's sake, preaching to the converted. It might make us feel good about ourselves (a rude person might say 'smug') but it clearly flies over the heads of the intended audience.

Because, let's face it, if these weeks, days and hours worked, I'd know what Work Zone Awareness was. But I don't. Do you?




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18 February 2013

Green Jujitsu: The Movie!

I was mulling recently that communicating my Green Jujitsu approach to employee/stakeholder engagement was proving as difficult as many people find the engagement itself. So I took a Green Jujitsu principle - fun - and applied it to, you guessed it, Green Jujitsu and commissioned this brilliant little animation.

It focusses on 'involvement' as a technique for simplicity, but there are quite a few messages in there if you look for them.

Because engagement is proving such a challenge for business, I have set myself a goal of 100,000 sustainability practitioners to see the animation. So I need your help. Please share either this blog or the clip directly from YouTube. Thanks!


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23 January 2013

The ONE thing you MUST do to secure commitment for sustainability

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

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

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


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

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

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

Trust me, this magic elixir works!


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28 November 2012

Culture Change Tips from the Sustainability Masterminds

Last Thursday I hosted a meeting of my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. This is a small group of sustainability practitioners from leading organisations who get together in exclusive locations (this time the wonderful Lumley Castle - see pic) to bounce ideas off each other in a semi-structured way (I provide an outline structure and templates to stimulate debate, but ultimately I let the discussion go where it wants.) This time the broad theme was stakeholders and culture change and we ended up with just shy of 50 key learning points from the session.

The meetings are run under Chatham House rules, so generic learning points can be shared, but contributions are anonymous. Here is a selection:

  • Culture change takes time and requires high levels of energy and perseverance;
  • Reward effort as well as outcome to encourage innovation;
  • Take care not to penalise those who move first;
  • Awards are powerful stimulators, but should be aimed at pride rather than personal gain (eg the prize is a donation to charity);
  • Need to accept ambiguities of sustainability and leap into the dark – otherwise you’ll achieve nothing;
  • Target and eliminate perverse incentives eg one participant has restructured their company, fleet and hire car policies to incentivise efficient vehicles and minimise mileage;
  • Some NGOs are easier to work with than others – but those open to conversation can add significant value and avoid later misunderstandings/conflicts;
  • Over last 12-18 months, stakeholder interest has shifted from internal operations to the supply chain;
  • Procurement teams have huge influence over the organisations’ environmental footprint – small changes here can make massive differences;
  • Suppliers must be made to understand they will be de-listed if they don’t change, or they won't change;
  • Need to translate sustainability language into language relevant to the audience (often said, rarely done well);
  • Use communications professionals to produce communications, don’t rely on amateur DIY;
  • Case studies, testimonies and stories are powerful tools – people like hearing about ‘people like them’;
  • Emotion then facts – start off by grabbing attention, then back up with data (on demand if appropriate);
  • The ideal message is “sustainability for pensioners” the kind of communications that would interest people who know quite a bit, but can be selective about what they read - spice up messages with QI-style quirky facts “Did you know…”, “Carbon myths” etc.

One delegate said that they have been to many different sustainability events in many different formats, but the Mastermind Group is the one they get most value from by a long, long way. Oh, and that the lunch was fantastic, too!


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15 November 2011

Green Academy: CSR and Stakeholder Webinars

We will be holding two Green Academy on-line sessions on 7 December 2011. Each session lasts for one hour. You need access to a computer with sound or a computer and a telephone. You will receive a workbook to apply the learning to your organisation prior to the start of the session.

This month's sessions are:

11am GMT: Introductory level: Stakeholder Engagement


  • Why engage stakeholders;
  • Effective stakeholder engagement;
  • Motivating your staff;
  • Communicating your successes.

Cost: £45+VAT. To register for the introductory level session click here (Paypal)


2pm GMT: Advanced level: Corporate Social Responsibility - The Ethical Angle


  • The case for responsible business;
  • Business and ethics - the big issues;
  • Fostering trust;
  • Corporate Civic Responsibility;
  • Classic moral dilemmas in business.

Cost: £45 + VAT. To register for the advanced level session click here (Paypal)


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26 October 2011

Making sustainability relevant to stakeholders

Everyone who has tried to spread the green message has come up against the wall of indifference. What's wrong with people? Don't they understand the world is in peril? Why won't they do anything?

What happens if you shout louder? People seem to take even less notice. So you start railing against the world - why can no-one grasp the issues instead of you?

The problem of course is people have plenty of priorities and will resist having another one. Yes, they care about the polar bear, but what's that got to do with their paper-pushing or lever-pulling job at Megacorp plc?

It's this gap between global issues like climate change and/or high level concepts like sustainability and the day to day pressures of completing that paperwork or finishing that widget that you need to bridge. And you bridge it not by trying to beat your values into their brain, but by putting that issue into the context of the world they inhabit.

Here are some tactics for doing this:

  • The human interest story: we respond to 'people like us' telling us their story - which is why TV reporters always interview the Western aid worker in famine stories rather than the poor victims (I hate this, but they do it for a reason);
  • Getting people involved in generating solutions: if people work out what this means to their job function, they make the bridge themselves and get a much deeper understanding than you telling them;
  • Tailor training and awareness material for particular job functions. So marketers get trained in green marketing, accountants in the business case for sustainability, product developers in eco-design etc;
  • Tap into any organisational cultural traits. If another issue is a key plank of the culture - eg innovation, health & safety, hygiene, third world development, charitable donations etc - then try to piggy back on that issue rather than trying to create a new plank.

But overall, we have to remember it is about them, not you. This can be tricky - I must admit I occasionally get dragged into a debate with a climate change "sceptic" online and I often forget that others are watching and may give the other guy the benefit of the doubt - particularly if I start batting down the same old tired arguments with a bit too much zeal.

Putting the old ego in the back pocket for a while and getting yourself into their world is the way to win people in the long term.

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8 June 2011

My Lo-tech Approach to Staff Engagement

I am increasingly trying to eradicate Powerpoint from my stakeholder engagement sessions whether for employees or external people. Tomorrow I'm jetting off to deliver the first of many energy awareness sessions for a major manufacturer armed only with a flip chart, pens, Post-its and some A0 prints of the Terra Infirma Brainstorming Tool (above).

Why? Well my favoured approach to engaging employees is to get them involved in developing new solutions. The benefits of this approach are:

  • People feel they are being taken seriously;
  • Individuals find it hard to switch off in exercises - so you get more attention;
  • You get automatic buy-in as people get excited about their ideas;
  • You usually get some cracking new suggestions;
  • If those suggestions are implemented then they're more likely to be accepted by employees.

The problem with Powerpoint (or any other presentational form) is that people reflexively sit back in their chair and go into passive listening mode. It is very hard to get their brains warmed up again to start generating ideas - much better to challenge them from the start.

The A0 sheets are highly effective too. They are fresh and novel for most participants, a big group can crowd around them, they encourage a more kinaesthetic approach to the problem, and the big sheet takes a lot of filling with Post-its, encouraging more ideas. The brainstorming tool itself is a simple fishbone diagram designed to ensure that all four main bases are covered. The top of the diagram is about doing the right thing, the bottom about doing it right. The left of the diagram is about people, the right about kit. This gives us four bases: formal procedures, actual behaviour, choice of technology and the application/maintenance of that technology.

Paper - it's the future!

BTW: Check out our new white paper on Fostering Green Behaviour At Work.

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11 October 2010

Symbolism Matters

I'm very heartened by the news that President Obama is going to re-install solar panels on the White House, a whole quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan removed those put up by Jimmy Carter in 1979. Symbolism, yes, but symbolism matters. Remember PM David Cameron's husky hugging back in 2006? Or his somewhat bumpy attempt to install a domestic wind turbine a year later? I was cynical at the time, but these were core parts of Cameron's ultimately successful attempt to decontaminate the Conservative Party's brand and make it electable again. In fact, he could do with some more symbolism now to back up his claim that his will be the "greenest Government ever" - there is plenty of work going on in the background, but we could do with something more tangible to chew on.

Like politicians, green business leaders have got to be seen to walk the talk. The message must go out to all stakeholders, both within and without the organisation - we mean green business. Some of this effort will undoubtedly be symbolic in nature to represent the wider programme.

There are two types of green symbolism:

1. Positive symbolism: being seen to embrace the new;

2. Negative symbolism: being seen to reject the old.

You can't do 1 without doing 2. Having a Prius in your driveway is worthless as a symbol if it is overshadowed by a colossal SUV. These things matter.

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25 August 2010

Keep Going!

For my forthcoming second book, The Green Executive, I interviewed 18 senior managers and executives with green business responsibilities. The one key theme that shone through the interviews was perseverance. Don't give up, don't despair, keep on at it, they said.


That might seem a really stupid question. Green business is challenging, so you have to persevere to succeed. Obvious, innit?

Yes, but there's more to it than that. If you are a green business champion of any ilk, your job is to bring other people with you. If you are seen to give up, or needlessly compromise, you will send out the wrong message to all the other stakeholders in the process, be they colleagues, potential new recruits, cynical observers, customers, investors, suppliers, partners, other businesses and pressure groups. If you give up, your believers will too and your detractors will grow in strength.

So zero pressure then, you only have the future of the planet on your shoulders. But seriously, no matter how hard it gets, just keep going!

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8 March 2010

People Power

I've just seen a quote on marketeer Seth Godin's blog, attributed to Carnegie:

"Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floors......Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory."

There seems to be two approaches to sustainability - technology oriented and people oriented - and I always believe that the AND is important - you have to do both (hence my brainstorming tool).

But fundamentally everything is about people. People create technology, people implement technology, people operate technology. When a resource has a cost - that is a societal (peoples') value - you could argue that nature would put a higher value on a kilo of dung than a kilo of gold. So we always have to look at sustainability through the human lens.

I have a saying: the barrier to sustainability is six inches wide - the width of the space between our ears.

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31 July 2009

More on Marksies...

Yesterday, I interviewed Richard Gillies, Director of CSR, Plan A and Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencers for my second book. He gave some really great insights into how and why they're delivering Plan A (because there is no Plan B), including their first eco-factory in Sri Lanka, which you can see on the Telegraph TV video above.

The company is somewhat coy about what return they have got on their initial £200m five year programme of improvements. The official line is that it has been "cost-neutral, moving into being cost negative". The main reason why they don't want to be candid on this is that the main driver for Plan A is to reinforce the 'trusted brand image' of M&S;, rather than deliver cost savings, and they don't want to appear to be mercenary by trumpeting financial savings. But it goes to show that, if you do it properly, green business won't cost you, but save you money.

Richard said that he saw Plan A as a change management programme, but of all the change programmes he has delivered before, this has been the easiest one to sell to stakeholders both within and outside the business. However there still was a language barrier between the 'CSR junkies' and the 'commercial animals' even though their interests were aligned.

His prime piece of advice was "seeing is believing - show people examples to get them on board".

Wise words from a leader in the field.

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8 December 2008

Weekly Tip #37: Managing Expectations

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

One trap that many fall into when working with stakeholders is to raise expectations too high. If stakeholders start to believe that they have ultimate say, they will get very angry if and when they are told they can’t have what they want. Tell them clearly:

We are listening to you, but at the end of the day we have to make the decisions, and sometimes we will disagree.

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