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.
There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:
Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.
These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.
...the word sustainability has devolved into a word that embodies a non-offensive, contradictory acknowledgement of the need to address the dire issues facing our rapidly changing climate without actually having to shift core business models...
...I bump into professional contacts of mine at various conferences and events in the sustainability space who say they feel disempowered in their role. They’ve “hit a ceiling” with executive leadership, they’ll tell me. Or they work in a silo in the facilities department or operations, or only have an intern for support. How can any single person in a massive organization have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the bottom line, particularly when that bottom line is triple-down, without the necessary backing and support?
I find this analysis depressing, a tad self-pitying and ultimately self-defeating. Enough exemplars have shown that massive leaps towards Sustainability can be made while making increased profit. The contradiction Holmes identifies is only in the mind – it's not an 'or', but an 'and'.
And, yes, one person will struggle to make a difference if they adopt the silo mentality of their organisation, but they need to turn that mindset around and see their role as facilitating others to make a difference instead (check out this edition of Ask Gareth). You don't need a huge team, or a team at all, to do that.
In her conclusion Holmes proposes education, suggesting starting over, for which, as she points out earlier in the article, we have limited time. Personally, I think if your organisational Sustainability programme is stuck under a ceiling there's a very simple formula to smash through to the next level:
Get buy-in from key players using Green Jujitsu (in large part by involving them actively in the following steps);
Set stretch targets within a reasonable timeframe (7-10 years typically);
Use backcasting to work out what that future vision of the organisation would look like and a list of what you have to start doing now to get there;
Help those key players do the things on your list which will have biggest impact, while identifying and eliminating barriers as you go along.
The first step is the most important. By involving key players, they have 'skin in the game' and you will start to see those ceilings disappear. The backcasting process itself is fun and really energises those involved. You'd be surprised how often meaningful engagement makes resistance to melt away like snow on a warm spring morning.
I'm shaking the lactic acid out of my legs the day after the toughest cycle I've done in a long, long time (possibly ever), a 75-mile sportive around the North York Moors with plenty of brutal ascents and descents (the pic above is actually from the Yorkshire Dales, but we did quite a few 25%+ climbs yesterday). What shocked me was, having come in the top 9% on the 'Standard' route in the 64-mile Cyclone sportive a month ago, I just scraped into the top half of the 'Standard' table yesterday. Added to that, at least two thirds of the participants did one of the two much longer, tougher routes than the one I did. It was sobering – I was suddenly plunged into a different league and it wasn't entirely a comfortable experience.
There are definitely different leagues in the Corporate Sustainability world. At the top we have those such as Interface, Unilever, Tesla, GE and, arguably, Marks & Spencer who are transforming the way they do business. The next level down contains the kind of business that signs up to the RE100 (100% renewable energy) pledge which will be tough to meet, but who aren't going through such a level of transformation. Below that are the companies who may be doing exciting things, but don't have really challenging targets. The bottom two leagues are those who are following the rest at a distance and those doing nothing.
What I find interesting and frustrating in equal measure is that many practitioners define themselves against the others in their league rather than aiming to leap up to the next level. Like my cycling, doing well at one level feels much more comfortable than being mediocre to poor in the next level up. But if you stay in your comfort zone, your efforts will inevitably plateau.
So what are you going to do to challenge yourself? Stretch targets matching those in the league above make a fine starting point.
I'm a big proponent of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal in Sustainability – I've always held Interface's Mission Zero (disclosure: a Terra Infirma client) as the epitome of ambition. There's no way Interface would have delivered the sustainability achievements they have if they hadn't set that vision of success. But it takes real guts to go for broke like that – what if you fall short?
A idea that came up at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group was 'a threshold of realism'. In other words, if you set a zero waste target and you get to 99.9%, have you failed? Only a pedant would say 'No.', a reasonable person would say 'Wow! That's amazing!"
The real reason to set an 0%/100% target is not to meet it exactly (you've got the laws of physics against you if nothing else), but to inspire the organisation to think big and deliver the scale of change which will get you into that ball park. So have the guts to set ambitious goals, strive to meet them, but don't beat yourself up if you fall fractionally short.
The installation of a pull-up bar on my school run route last year started a "challenge Daddy" thing with my kids where they joyfully count reps as I huff and puff, lugging my beer gut into the air over and over again. As I could barely manage 10 when we started, I set myself a target of 20 by the end of 2015. I achieved that by March and slowly crept up to about 24 by the summer. Last month I decided to reset my target to 30 and managed 32 last week. This morning I was disappointed with 29.
The psychology fascinates me. I quickly met my original target and was then happy to coast until I set another target – unthinkable this time last year – and easily met it again, hardly noticing the extra effort.
A sustainability manager I was interviewing a couple of weeks ago (for an exciting client project you'll hear about next year) used a high jump analogy for this. You have to be able to see the bar to clear it. If the bar was replaced by a laser detecting how high you jump, you would never manage the same height. In the same way you need clear, ambitious sustainability targets, and, when you hit them, raise the bar or the organisation will coast.
That sounds obvious, but I've been reviewing the new UN Sustainable Development Goals for the next edition of Ask Gareth, and, of the 169 'targets' only a minority are quantified. "Substantially increasing the share of renewable energy" is highly unlikely to drive change (and provides plenty of cover to justify poor progress).
Recent events have reminded of that legendary, probably apocraphyl, letter from a bank manager to a spendthrift student:
"We have increased your overdraft to £1,000. Please note that this is a limit, not a target."
This attitude appears to have been adopted by the UK Government on carbon and renewable targets – they are seen as just that, targets, to be met and no more. Taking this view narrows mindsets and efforts down to 'business as usual plus a bit'. The 'plus a bit' tends to cost us extra, rather than going for renewable breakthroughs which would drive innovation, economic growth and job creation – a worthwhile investment in anybody's book.
This conservative attitude is not limited to politics either. I have heard the words "what's the least we can do to get out of jail?" uttered in one of my sustainability workshops (but we ended up raising the bar, not lowering it by the end of the session).
In another session a delegate mused on a 10 year target of 40% reduction in carbon footprint, saying "4% per year, mmm, I think that's doable." I challenged him – to get to 40% probably means not reducing carbon very much for several years while installing the kit or transforming the supply chain to deliver 40%. If you chunk it down, you'll exhaust the 4% improvements – and yourself – in a couple of years.
To deliver the kind of change we need requires a change in mindset. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a key step to delivering that new mindset.
Time and time again, clients tell me "if only we'd factored this in before we invested in that new boiler [or whatever] - bad timing!"
Sunk costs - those capital investments where the cash cannot easily be recovered - are a real headache for sustainability ambitions as no-one wants to be seen to 'waste' that money, even if ripping out a relatively new piece of kit and replacing it with a more sustainable one is the economically sensible thing to do.
The answer, of course, is to get in there before the investment is made and get the most sustainable bang for your buck. But this simple action is much more difficult in practice as the most restricting decisions are often made by default before any investment appraisal takes place.
The only answer is to have a clear sustainability strategy, with appropriate stretch targets, embedded into the structure of the organisation. Trying to waylay every investment reactively as it comes over the horizon is like trying to rugby tackle charging elephants - it's never going to end well.
The first four of my rules of pragmatic environmentalism were mainly aimed at the old-school green activism mindset which in my opinion holds us back from the rapid progress we need to make. But this last, fifth rule is aimed at us all.
For too long we have been told that we face existential threats, but are given '10 Top Tips' such as reusing plastic bags and not leaving the TV on standby. While there's nothing wrong with doing these, they won't deliver sustainability on their own and the cognitive dissonance between the threat and the action can switch people off as its like firing a pea shooter at an aircraft carrier.
We need to go big, or go home.
Two weeks ago today I submitted the manuscript for my next DoShort book, provisionally titled Accelerating Sustainability using the 80:20 Rule. The 80:20 rule says that, in many cases, 20% of actions/effort/input give us 80% of results and 80% of actions give us just 20%. This is a phenomenally powerful tool as it allows us to cut away all the extraneous activity - all those networks of green champions, endless supplier questionnaires and jute bags of green goodies - and focus on those things which will make a real difference - such as ditching a low sustainability supplier in favour of one with good sustainability credentials, or substituting secondary materials for virgin materials, or purchasing an electric vehicle fleet.
Along with the 80:20 Rule, a restless mindset of "good, we've done that, but it's not enough, how can we do it better?" will keep you out of your comfort zone and continually reaching for the next level.
And one of the most powerful moves is the stretch target - if you set your sights on cutting your carbon emissions by, say, 50% in 10 years, you will come up with much better projects than you will if your target is 5% by next year.
So set the bar high, clear it, then push it higher. You may just surprise yourself!
In Steve Jobs' legendary commencement speech to Stanford University students (above), he signed off with a maxim he first read in the proto-sustainability bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue, namely "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish."
In other words, keep searching for what you want to do and don't be afraid to try stuff and fail. When you succeed, don't stop, keeping going.
This is the opposite of the 'mid-table mediocrity' trap identified by the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We need to build on success, not rest on our laurels.
So how do you reward success, but keep people hungry - or constructively discontent?
One of my favourite approaches is competition - whether giving out awards for good performance, internal/external league tables and/or competitive tendering where the best sustainability performance is always rewarded. No-on wants to lose that no1 slot, or that Queen's Award, or lose a contract to a greener competitor. So they have to keep raising the bar - and so do their competitors.
And if you can bring a bit of the foolish into it, why not?
Sustainability is by definition the biggest challenge facing mankind and, by extension, business. In trying to meet that challenge, one of the greatest dilemmas is how high to set the bar - what targets should you set for yourself? I spend a lot of time with businesses working on targets and the inclination is either to set very vanilla targets in the near future or extremely ambitious targets so far ahead that they can be abandoned to the next generation of employees. The key of course is to find the right trade off between ambition and timeframe to push the organisation to meaningful step changes in real time.
Another strategy is to let someone else to set the targets by using external standards, whether environmental management standards like ISO14001, product standards like the EU eco-label or reporting standards. While these have many advantages - they are set by third parties, they strive to include all material issues, and they are a useful badge - they do tend to be lowest common denominator as they have to be universal. More worryingly, sometimes organisations hide behind such standards - mining company Glencore once refused to release figures on a certain type of injury because "it wasn't required by the Global Reporting Initiative" - hardly the kind of transparency that the GRI was set up to promote.
There is no easy answer to the target setting challenge and experience is the only effective guide. For large, capital intensive businesses, I prefer to see stretch targets which challenge the status quo set in the 10 year timeframe. But that is simply a matter of judgement - you'll have to rely on your own!
On Tuesday we had the sixth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis.
We returned to a venue for the first time, the fantastic Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. Most of this room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships, and it has functioned as everything from a prison to a wine cellar and, most recently, for exploring sustainability strategy in detail!
The Mastermind Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, or give the specific examples we were discussing, but here is a selection of the generic conclusions we reached:
Business meets societal needs. No value => no profit and no profit => no value;
Defining societal need in large companies can be difficult as they are often multi-faceted;
Fundamental question: does growth => more harm? Depends on business model;
Ethical dilemma – whose ethics are ethical? The definition may be out of your hands;
Another ethical dilemma – where does responsibility end? Again, the definition may be out of your hands;
Fundamentally need to do what’s right for your business;
One effective tactic is to drive sustainability goals by piggybacking on other business goals;
Need to decide on granularity of the strategy eg simple energy efficiency measures vs reconfiguring whole business;
Sometimes you arrive at sustainability objectives from a different direction, but this is not a problem;
Asset intensive industries typically use 5 year rolling planning cycle – too short for sustainability planning;
Ten year stretch targets for sustainability are compatible with such a cycle;
An alternative is to use iconic dates eg corporate centenaries – something for the organisation to rally around;
People can obsess about the little stuff ,eg disposable coffee cups, and ignore the big picture;
Emotions beat arguments, so show don’t tell – “facts” are never enough;
‘Behind the label’ – provide the detail for those who want to dive into it;
Need to complete the whole product sustainability jigsaw;
A full product life cycle assessment can be a real eye opener, however care must be taken with life cycle assumptions (eg use patterns, life span);
Product stories are an increasingly effective way to market green performance;
Independent substantiation of all claims is vital.
As always, the real benefit of the session lies in how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.
The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations. It meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.
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.