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24 May 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

I haven't reviewed many Sustainability books on here of late, mainly because the few I have read recently have been terrible, some to the point of being unreadable. Frankly I didn't want to bore you with diatribes against poor authors (in both senses of the word 'poor'). However, a couple of weeks ago I took a duplicate present back to Waterstones and, on a whim, picked up Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth as a replacement. Talk about serendipity.

The titular doughnut is Raworth's analogy for a sustainable economy which is strong enough to pull people above the inner limit of the poverty line (the social foundation), yet stays within natural limits (the ecological ceiling). Within these two thresholds we should be 'agnostic' about growth. I love a simple, resonant analogy and this is one of the best Sustainability models I've come across for a long time.

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23 November 2016

Sustainability and the Laws of Thermodynamics: A Primer

solar farm

Last week somebody responded to the edition of Ask Gareth on zero waste by saying zero waste was thermodynamically impossible. My heart soared as I love a bit of thermo, and a bit of a debate, so I thought I'd expand a little on Sustainability and thermodynamics, and explain why this comment is incorrect.

Way back in 1998 when I was a newbie researcher exploring Sustainability as a concept, I was wading through a mountain of heartfelt waffle on the subject when I stumbled on an explanation in terms of thermodynamics. It made complete sense to me and something clicked. When I explained this to my project supervisors, one of them said thermodynamics was for chemical reactions, not for the whole planet. I persisted as I like nice neat explanations for big complex situations and I won him over. To this day I tend to fall back on the laws of thermo to help me spot perpetual motion machines and other blind alleys, and remind me of the big Sustainability picture.

There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, and a gazillion definitions of each, but for our purposes we need the first and second Laws which can be expressed simply as:

First Law: energy and material can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.

Second Law: the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time.

As entropy is a measure of disorder (read: pollution, dissipated resources), the two are often interpreted as us being stuffed in the long term – inevitably the world will grind to a halt. This is the interpretation of zero-waste-impossible guy. But the crucial bit is the 'isolated' caveat – the earth is not isolated, rather it receives huge amounts of external energy in the form of solar insolation and gravitational pulls.

Earth's natural systems have been pretty sustainable for the last billion years as they follow two important principles to comply with those two laws:

1. there is no waste, all materials and nutrients are endlessly recycled;

2. those cycles and everything else, are powered by those external energy sources, most notably via photosynthesis.

Translating these into industrial parlance and you get the circular, zero waste economy and the renewable energy industry as models for a sustainable economy.

Any questions?


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4 March 2015

Are we ignoring the 'social' in Sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I consider whether we tend to ignore the social when we talk about 'Sustainability' and some of the issues surrounding definitions.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

I rely on a steady stream of killer questions to keep this series running - if you want to submit one fire away!.


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2 June 2014

The First Law of Sustainability

charlie messThe Second Law of Thermodynamics says:

The entropy of a closed system always increases.

Indulge me here for a minute...

Entropy is a measure of disorder. My favourite analogy for the Law is a our toddler Charlie in our living room. Disorder always increases unless an external source of energy (ie a parent) intervenes and tidies up.

If we use entropy as a measure of pollution, the Second Law tells us that unless we use an external source of energy (eg solar), then in the long run we are, frankly,  in deep doodoo (that's a specialist scientific term). Every time we want to do something useful - make electricity, move a car - it will always involve creating more bad stuff than good.

Nature gets over this by using solar/gravitationally-powered cycles such as the carbon cycle and the water cycle. By opening up the system to these external sources of energy, nature can be sustainable.

Why am I lecturing you on Thermo? Well, the Second Law is a wonderful rule of thumb when sizing up potential sustainability ideas.

The Second Law rules out perpetual motion machines and adds a level of cynicism to my assessment of technologies such as ground source heat pumps and carbon capture and storage. Both of these attempt to decrease the entropy of the system (turning diffuse heat into concentrated heat and concentrating a diffuse gas) and are often prey to 'unexpected inefficiencies' when implemented in practice.

The Second Law pushes us to emulate nature and use renewable energy and the circular economy concept to build a sustainable economy.

Not bad for eight words - that's why I think of it as the First Law of Sustainability.


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12 May 2014

'Do Nothing' never looked so unappetising...

old oil pump

Industries fail. Big brands hit the rocks. Governments fall. Change is as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

The winners are those who can read the writing on the wall and embrace the new realities. The losers are those who sit tight and pin their faith in crossed fingers.

With climate change at the top of the agenda, resource prices remaining stubbornly at an historic high and environmental legislation tightening, sustainability pressures are building. On the other hand clean technology evolves, synergies emerge and business opportunities open up.

Change brings with it risk, yes, sure, but what people are less attuned to is the risk of 'do nothing'. A powerful 'Green Jujitsu' lever is to communicate 'business as usual' as the bigger risk - to tap into people's risk aversion to push them towards sustainability, not away from it. That takes a clever piece of reframing, but it does work when you get it right.


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27 January 2014

Reasons to be cheerful (parts 1-327)

business angel

We can be a gloomy lot, us environmentalists - always on the verge of despair. But, hold on a minute...

  • Renewable energy produced a record 15.5% of the UK’s electricity in the second quarter of 2013 – up 50% on the previous year (rewind a decade and renewables hardly bothered the statisticians);
  • Portugal managed a whopping 70% of electricity from renewables in quarter 1. Iceland is pretty much zero carbon in this respect, Spain and Germany are also breaking records left right and centre;
  • The cost of a solar panel has plummeted by a factor of 100 since the 1970s and halved in just the last couple of years;
  • Electric vehicle sales in the US have risen 447% on the back of the Tesla Model S. The Tesla was also the best selling car of any kind in Norway in September, but it got bumped in October - by its electric cousin the Nissan Leaf.
  •  The amount of material going to landfill in the UK has hit an all-time low;
  • According to the CBI, a third of all UK growth now comes from the green sector;
  • The rise in global carbon emissions slowed last year.

And there's grim news for business as usual:

  • Fossil energy prices remain stubbornly high despite the shale gas boom in the US;
  • Commodity prices in general are higher than they have ever been since we started measuring them.

OK, there's no room for complacency, but we are making progress and we should be proud of that. We won't get to tipping points without struggling through the 'hard yards' of breaking open vested interests and established infrastructure first. Telling other people "we'll never make it" dispirits them as well as us. So let's cheer up, be proud and keep on at it!


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15 January 2014

The Ultimate Career Goal of Every Sustainability Practitioner...

grass feet small

...should be to make ourselves redundant. Unfortunately I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime, but it is the goal we should always be aiming for.

There's a tendency amongst far too many in the sector to try to make it exclusive with increasingly complex jargon and inflated self-righteousness.

We need to do the opposite - make sustainability inclusive, intuitive and integrated into everyday life - making sustainability sustainable in other words. Then we can put our feet up.


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13 December 2013

All your sustainability/CSR questions answered!


I've got an exciting new resource for you coming next year - Ask Gareth - a sustainability agony aunt, for want of a better term.

Here's how it works. You send me tricky questions regarding implementing sustainability/corporate social responsibility, I pick those I think will appeal to a wide audience and answer them. Simple as that.

So what are you waiting for? Submit your questions here.


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8 November 2013

Are we winning?

raceRegular readers may have noticed a rather upbeat tone to my posts here recently. And for good reason. Renewables starting to take big chunks out of the energy budget (15.5% of electricity in the UK last quarter), more renewables are coming on stream, electric vehicles starting to look like winners (sales up 447% in the US, Tesla sedan and Leaf hitting top of car sales in Norway), a semi-circular economy (waste to landfill falling) - the good news keeps on coming.

But I must admit I was worried I was overdoing it - surely the big picture is still worsening? Well, last week we got the news that the rise in carbon emissions is 'slowing down' due to "the use of less fossil fuels, more renewable energy and increased energy savings" in a way that the researchers involved believe is permanent, not a blip.

So, are we winning?

Not yet. Emissions are still rising (hitting a record last year), we are likely to have used our carbon budget by 2034 (according to PwC) and there is plenty of bad news about. But it does look as if the brakes are starting to come on carbon in particular and, in the economy, the momentum is swinging in our direction. And I think we should celebrate. Yes, celebrate.

Many people believe that there's a risk of people sitting on their laurels when good news come through and that we should keep up the doom-mongering (stand up, numerous NGOs and take a bow). But in my experience it is despair and feelings of helplessness that freeze progress, not success. We are competitive people - when we achieve a goal we tend to celebrate then press on with enthusiasm to do even better - otherwise nobody would ever start level 2 of any computer game.

Every win you, me or they make is a small step towards a sustainable society - a noble goal. So, yes, let's pat ourselves on our collective backs, smile, then psyche ourselves up to take on the next challenge with relish!


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23 September 2013

Has 'sustainability' been devalued? No, just popularised!


I often see it said in sustainability/corporate social responsibility circles that the terms 'sustainability' and 'CSR' have become diluted and devalued through use/misuse until they are almost meaningless. While I agree that there is some truth in this - particularly with the ambiguous word 'sustainability' - I can't help thinking that too many practitioners and 'thought leaders' resent the world catching up with them and, instead of rejoicing, feel they have to be derogatory. It's like those music fans who only like bands before they are famous and resent the popularity of their once-obscure favourites when they hit the big time.

In fact there is a counter-argument  - that the bar is rising on sustainability, not falling. A decade ago, CSR meant sponsoring the local kids' football team, not the big chewy issues it covers like wage differentials, tax avoidance and working conditions in the supply chain today. A decade ago, retailers only put their own fossil fuel and electricity use in their carbon footprints. Today they are driving sustainability down through their supply chains (WalMart) or building circular supply chains (Marks & Spencer). In the UK, household recycling used to be a minority pursuit, now it has tipped 40% of domestic waste - and domestic energy use has fallen.

That's not to say all is rosy, quite the contrary, there's a colossal amount to be done as the IPCC will tell us next week, but we are moving in the right direction. To achieve anything close to sustainability, we've got to lower the barriers to participation to get as many people on board as possible - it has to be a mass movement, not the preserve of a select few. Resenting progress is an incredibly shortsighted, damaging and frankly self indulgent perspective. To accelerate, we need to build on momentum, help people succeed, celebrate, AND then encourage them to go further.


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20 March 2013

It's Time to Forget the Three Pillars of Sustainability...

three pillars of sustainabilityWe are often told that there are three pillars of sustainability: environment, society and economy, but I say it is time to stop thinking that.

Sustainability is an abstract noun. Who really cares about abstract nouns? Let's be honest - we get passionate about real things - our families, our careers, our friends, our leisure activities, the natural world and, yes, our possessions - but not abstract nouns. And certainly not one that has over 100 definitions.

The organisation we work for is a real thing. It has employees, assets, suppliers, and customers. It gives us a social structure, identity, status, a sense of purpose, job satisfaction (hopefully) and material well being. It is real, not abstract, something that means something to us.

And those same three pillars form the bedrock upon which our businesses are built:

  • Environment: all the raw materials, food, energy, water we need to function and the eco-system services (climate stability, flood defence, land, fresh air) we depend on to exist.
  • Society: our colleagues, customers, local communities, along with the civil structures we rely on.
  • The economy: our suppliers, customers, partners, and the tax and regulatory framework we operate in.

So those three pillars are much, much more fundamental to our business than some airy-fairy out-there concept like 'sustainability.'

And given that vital importance, shouldn't every business be striving to nurture and strengthen those three pillars, rather than trying to bleed them dry?


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25 June 2012

Blame it on Rio+20: Consensus or Competition?

So the Rio+20 conference chugged to its almost inevitable anticlimax. The NGOs and green-friendly press are looking for villains - missing big name leaders, lack of commitment by those who were there, the (allegedly) pernicious influence of the oil industry have all been blamed, but I've got a completely different view. It's no-one's fault. It's the process.

I think it's blindingly obvious that if you try and get over 100 countries - all with different economies, cultures, political systems and languages - to agree a single text on a hugely complex issue, you are going to get the lowest common denominator - and that common denominator is going to be pretty damn low. Consensus kills inspiration, innovation and ambition.

In my lighter moments, I mull on the idea that we should be holding international competitions rather than conferences. We would expect delegates to turn up and compete as to which country is doing most to shift towards sustainability. This already happens a little on an informal basis - witness the timing of UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg's announcement that London Stock Exchange listed companies would face mandatory carbon reporting. But what if we could do it on a grand, Olympics of Sustainability scale? We would have countries striving for a gold medal, pushing themselves to greater heights.

This isn't just idle beard stroking, some of the best sustainability moves have been driven by competition. With my local authority hat on, I witnessed the effect of Forum for the Future's Sustainable City Index. Our city, Newcastle, won it in 2009 and you could feel everyone in the Council and key partners striving to retain the title in 2010, which we did. Unfortunately Forum for the Future then killed off the Index and the pressure has come off. In business, Steve Jobs launched an ambitious green programme at Apple after being stung into action by a Greenpeace ranking of the environmental performance of consumer electronics companies. UK supermarkets battle it out every year in a green ranking scheme - nobody wants the wooden spoon.

And going back to the subject of this blog, competitions have been hugely successful in stimulating green behaviour within businesses. Researching the Green Executive, I found sustainability competitions between teams in a medium sized law firm, Muckle LLP, and in international drinks giant Diageo. They are fun, compelling and drive ambition - everything that consensus isn't.

But how would the idea work on the global scale? Hmm, back to the beard stroking.


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22 June 2012

The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability" and you'll have to listen to find out what that is.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC15 The Biggest Barrier to Sustainability

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.



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6 February 2012

Book Reviews: Hot, Flat & Crowded and The God Species

I don't tend to read many "green" books these days - not because I think I know it all, but because I'm topping up my knowledge everyday simply by doing my job, so sitting down in the evening and opening a weighty tome at p1 is less than appealing. However, I had heard a lot about these two titles so I read them back to back. On the face of it the two cover similar ground - charting the scale of the environmental challenge and what we need to do to fix it, but they go about their jobs in quite different ways.

Hot, Flat & Crowded by Thomas Friedman is a few years old now (I picked up my copy in a second hand book stall at my son's school), but I had somehow managed to avoid the works of this pillar of US green thinking. The book is very well researched and covers a huge amount of ground including some concepts I was unfamiliar with such as "Dutch Disease" - the negative impact of sudden discoveries of natural resources - and the link between human rights in OPEC countries and the price of oil. Friedman's main thesis is that while the US is addicted to oil it will never free itself from the threat from militant Islam and will end up getting crushed by the Chinese economic juggernaut. Maybe it was Friedman's assumption of a US readership, or the reliance on lengthy quotes from the good and the great from around the world, but frankly I found reading Hot, Flat & Crowded a bit of a trudge.

You can't say the same about Mark Lynas' zippy new book The God Species. The thesis here is that as we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power, to stop the damage before it is too late. Lynas uses the Planetary Boundaries Group's set of 10 9 global environmental pressures to assess the threat from everything from climate change to loss of freshwater before proposing the most effective way of dealing with each problem. While doing so he lays into right-wing anti-environmental libertarians and left-wing greenies with equal abandon, arguing that the former ignore the science on the problems, but the latter similarly ignore the evidence on the most promising solutions. Not content with lauding the green bogeymen nuclear and GM, he delights in proposing water privatisation, carbon offsetting and geoengineering techniques - all anathema to the green movement.

Overall I found The God Species refreshing, entertaining and informative - certainly enhancing my knowledge of the nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification to name but two. Lynas (and indeed Friedman) is one of an emerging breed of what I call 'rational environmentalists' who say "forget the politics and the sacred cows, look at the facts, find the solutions that work". I too have long believed that while the political green movement may have done great work flagging up problems, they are hamstrung by their own dogma when it comes to solutions - nothing is ever good enough for them. That's not to say I'm swallowing Lynas' conclusions wholesale just yet - there is a faint whiff of wilful contrarianism about the book that makes me want to seek out second opinions - but he has certainly made me challenge some of my own shibboleths, and that's never a bad thing.


The God Species: a must read.

Hot, Flat & Crowded: ideal for American students of geopolitics.

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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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30 September 2011

Staff Engagement for Sustainability

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23 September 2011

Fear of a Green Planet

Despite the fact I've been working "in the environment" for over a decade, I still get surprised at how fearful people are of sustainable solutions.

To take an example, I subscribe to a mailing list of professional engineering consultants. A debate sprung up about wind power and intermittency - a valid and serious concern. I posted that we needed smart grids to balance supply and demand. The immediate response from one poster was that he'd never let an electricity company cut his house off from the grid. I had to quickly respond that no-one to my knowledge had ever considered this, but I was very surprised that an educated person would jump to the conclusion that this kind of intrusion would be the result.

There is a human tendency to fear change. And our media has a terrible tendency to play on those fears - witness the repeated exaggeration of the cost of Chris Huhne's energy reforms: free market "think tank" says £500 per house per year, regulator Ofgem says £90 - which figure do you think gets repeated again and again? Is it a surprise that people fear the worst?

I think this fear is simply a desire to stick with what we know. And while it is a good idea to keep promoting the positives of tackling, say, climate change - energy security, cleaner local air, cheaper bills (in time) - experience suggests that a significant chunk of the public will still find something to fear.

Instead I think we have to look at societal revolutions that have happened - for example the internet. No-one ever argued for the internet becoming so prevalent in our lives. It happened because people liked it. They liked having all that information at their fingertips, they liked being able to download books and music, they liked being able to keep in touch with their relatives around the world without the dreaded Xmas letter.

So how do we do this with sustainability? The internet is providing some - music, movies and books shifted by electrons rather than atoms - people like the convenience. Feed In Tariffs make householders want to install renewables to generate some cash - people like that. The congestion charge and differentiated road tax encourage people to buy low emission vehicles - people like the access and the lower costs.

It is solutions like these where we offer people options, which are not obligatory but desirable, that will tip the balance in the sustainability direction. People have to want to do it - if you bear that in mind then much more effective solutions will follow.

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15 September 2011

Closing the Loop - from Outputs to Inputs

Traditionally we have worried about what comes out of our economy - solid wastes, persistent toxins, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ozone  and so on. But increasingly focus is shifting to the sustainability of inputs - energy, water and raw materials - as these factors have a much bigger and immediate impact on business viability. Let's face it, no water = no business, no energy = no business, no raw materials = no business.

You may not have noticed as there was a wedding on TV that weekend, but back in June, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency - the go to guy for the lowdown on energy for Governments - said that oil production may have peaked back in 2006. If you have filled up your car recently, the resulting bill was probably bad for your health - and energy prices are impacting on food and clothing prices - not good news in the current financial turmoil. Then we have China buying up rare earth metal supplies and various NGOs flagging up water stresses across the world.

So what's the answer? Well, in nature, if a leaf falls off a tree it is recycled by worms, fungi and/or bacteria into nutrients for that tree or another plant, creating a cycle of nutrients. Same with water, carbon, nitrogen and other key materials - they all move in cycles. This is how nature's processes have evolved over billions of years to be sustainable in a world of finite resources.

Carpet tile giants and green business pioneers InterfaceFLOR realised this some time ago. To become sustainable - their goal is zero impact on the environment - they obviously have to source sustainable raw materials. While they are using some natural materials to replace the traditional oil-based fibres, this would not cover all inputs. So they decided to use waste carpet as a raw material. While their 'Evergreen' carpet leasing service has failed to set the market alight (apparently accountants can't handle carpet as a revenue cost rather than a capital cost - photocopiers and vehicles yes, but carpets no...), their 'Re-entry 2.0' carpet recycling facility has been a roaring success.

There are countless other opportunities for this kind of thinking. I am reliably informed that road sweepings have a higher concentration of platinum than that in naturally occuring ores due to all those catalytic converters in our cars releasing lots of tiny amounts. So people are working on the technology to 'mine' those materials from our streets and return them to the economy. Likewise there is great interest in 'mining' obsolete mobile phones for the precious metals within.

This requires a big shift in thinking away from outputs and towards inputs. Recovery and recycling are traditionally seen as waste management options rather than as sources of high quality raw materials - so quality suffers. The current prevalence of virgin raw materials means that such 'secondary' materials also tend to suffer from low volumes, high prices and lack of competition. Forward-thinking companies like Marks & Spencer are actively working to strengthen these new supply chains by increasing volumes, demanding higher quality of materials and encouraging a diversity of suppliers. The recycled polyester brolly pictured is a result of these efforts.

When stuff we rely on starts running out, we'll thank these pioneers for their foresight.

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15 August 2011

Get In Early!

A recurring theme from our clients is that great opportunities have been missed because sustainability wasn't considered early enough in a particular project. By the time anyone with environmental responsibilities gets to see the plans, momentum has already started and the best that can be done is a slight deflection in a greener direction rather than the radical rethink required.

The obvious solution is to make sure that sustainability is considered at the very earliest stage - right back when the need for any project is being debated, and certainly before any solutions are proposed. The bigger the project and the longer its impact (eg construction), the more important this becomes.

But fundamentally this is a symptom of a wider malaise - sustainability is still in a silo and not integrated into the DNA of the organisation. In good organisations, safety is seen as everyone's responsibility, and in TQM, quality is seen as everyone's responsibility. To be a true green business everyone must take responsibility for sustainability, rather than calling in the 'Green Team' towards the end of planning get a project rubber stamped or tweaked at the end. Then sustainability will never be an afterthought.

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29 July 2011

Make it easy for your staff to be green!

At the minute I am spending the bulk of my project time engaging clients' staff members in sustainability with the aim of changing their attitudes and behaviour. I've talked about some of the techniques I use elsewhere, but one issue that keeps coming up is non-green behaviour is often easier than green. It stands to reason that if you expect your staff to act green, you've got to make it easy for them - if you want someone to use a recycling bin, then don't stick it at the end of the corridor, put it by their desk.

A great recent example was a session where someone complained that no-one was using the company's teleconferencing system. When we explored why not, we discovered that in order to calculate the financial benefits of the system the company made it a condition of booking that a calculation of avoided staff travel time and travel costs had to be included. So you'd have to sit down and work out where everyone was coming from, how they were travelling, how long it would take them, what each person's hourly cost was and what fares/hire car charges/mileage they would incur. And then add it all up and then you could use the system.

Most people are unfamiliar with teleconferencing, so by putting this extra burden on "good" behaviour, staff were just sticking to the same old "bad" behaviour they were used to - booking a conference room and letting everyone make their own travel arrangements. You can hardly blame them.

This is known in the trade as a "perverse incentive". If you want your staff to act in a certain way, you have to make sure that the architecture of choices (to borrow from the book Nudge which is all about this type of thinking) always makes it easy to take the green choice and harder to take the non-green choice.

A positive example of this I came across recently with another client was they had changed their travel booking so that booking a train fare was done in house for you, but if you wanted a short haul flight, you had to book and pay for it yourself and claim back the cost. So while you still had the choice, it was much more of a hassle to fly.

One option I always offer to my clients is to capture these issues because they are often below the radar issues that only emerge when I challenge attendees to think of solutions. Not only does the client get an extremely useful "to fix" list, the attendees feel empowered and much more likely to engage properly both inside the session and afterwards.

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