One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:
We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.
But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:
Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.
As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.
I've recently noticed a real gulf in the way top sustainability practitioners talk about environmental legislation and the way everybody else does.
When you read the press or listen to many business executives, these laws are said to be stifling growth, raising prices and putting people out of business (ignoring the fact that most of the energy price rise has been due to stubbornly high oil prices). Legislation = bad.
But when we touch on legislation in, say, my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, there is a completely different tone to the conversation. These guys believe that legislation is their ally - driving innovation, getting the attention of senior management and punishing those who don't invest in sustainability. Legislation = good.
As always it comes down to mindset. Do you want to surf the waves or let them knock you over in the shallows?
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a controversial figure in the corporate social responsibility world. He is a proud proponent of the social benefits of free market capitalism, he is an anti-union, low tax, small-Government libertarian, he has made doubtful noises on the predicted impacts of climate change and noisily opposed President Obama's health care proposals. Yet he runs one of the most successful green businesses in the world, caps the ratio of the best paid in his company to 19 times that of the average (compared to 350-500 times you get in similar corporations) and is an active supporter of small, local suppliers to his stores. Not easy to pigeonhole, to say the least.
So it was with much anticipation and a little trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Conscious Capitalism which, although it is co-written with the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Inc, is written in Mackey's voice. The book's first words, inside the fly cover, quote the Conscious Capitalism Credo:
"We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more."
Mackey and Sisodia make a pretty convincing case for the benefits that the free market has brought to society, blaming its ills on crony-capitalism, state capitalism or unintended side effects. But, they acknowledge, far too many corporations are like caterpillars, munching their way through everything within reach, when they should be like butterflies - beautiful and pollenating the eco-system upon which they depend.
And that is the essence of Conscious Capitalism - every business is part of a complex eco-system of suppliers, customers, employees, investors, communities and the environment itself. And by nurturing, rather than exploiting, these other stakeholders, everybody wins. This is similar to Porter & Kramer's concept of Creating Shared Value - investment in customers, suppliers and communities increases the pie for all. However, whereas Porter & Kramer make their case in business terms, Mackey claims Conscious Capitalism aims to fulfil a higher social purpose and is driven by love and caring, not profits. Profit is a means to delivering a company's higher purpose, not the driving force.
The book is very elegantly written and structured, going through the four tenets - higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture. However, it is much more about an attitude than practical take-away ideas or lists of top tips. And it has to be said that the frequency of the use of the word 'love' is quite startling, even to an old bleeding heart liberal like myself.
My problem with Conscious Capitalism is not the butterflies like Whole Foods Market, but the caterpillars. The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates the need for the regulation of global commons, and the most global of all, the atmosphere, is difficult to protect by relying on the good intentions of many individual business leaders. Maybe this is why Mackey downplays climate change (subtly in the book) as it doesn't fit the model.
On the other hand, as a manifesto for progressive business, Conscious Capitalism hits the nail on the head and provides plenty of (whole grain) food for thought. Certainly between chapters I found myself mulling on the higher purpose of Terra Infirma - "Bringing Sustainability to Life" - and reassessed a recent decision I made which I thought was in the best interest of the business but now realise I got wrong.
In summary, a breath of fresh air that will challenge some of your more entrenched thinking.
I've produced this PESTLE analysis of the Political, Environmental, Social, Technological, Legal, Economic mega trends which could have an impact on sustainability strategies. I produced it for this week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, but thought some readers may find it useful, so here it is!
I spent yesterday contributing to an draft of a client's sustainability strategy. What was most impressive was the Herculean attempts to keep the usual corporate PR drivel out of the text. Typically, somebody would say:
"How about 'we will endeavour to fulfil our moral obliga...' oh that's a steaming pile of meaningless management crap! How about 'we will [do X]'?"
This plain speaking was so refreshing compared to my experience in one of my Green Executive interviews. The interviewee (I won't say which one) gave a brilliantly candid interview, full of all sorts of perspectives which percolated through to the rest of the text.
Understandably, he did ask that I run the resulting text past the company's corporate communications team to check he hadn't dropped any clangers. Unfortunately they took it upon themselves to rewrite the piece into an incredibly bland, glossy press release, taking out all the good, meaty bits - in fact you could have changed the company name to any other and you wouldn't have noticed any dissonance.
After some polite to-ing and fro-ing, I told them bluntly that, unless they pointed out anything in the original that was either factually incorrect or commercially sensitive, I would publish it as it was. They refused to co-operate, so I went ahead.
Here's why we need to talk straight when it comes to sustainability:
It starts us off in an honest frame of mind;
It forces us to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to do;
It makes our commitments and efforts more credible - stripping away any whiff of greenwash;
It encourages transparency and openness;
It helps colleagues, suppliers and customers buy into the sustainability and understand what the organisation is really trying to do;
It allows all stakeholders to understand the commitments - and hold us to them.
So, I suppose this post is a bit of a plea. Let's drop the all-too-prevalent tone of the professional copywriter and tell it how it is!
'Partnership' is one of those funny words which far too many people spout with their brains disengaged - particularly when it comes to sustainability. It is automatically assumed to be the right thing to do in all circumstances, when in reality a bad partnership, like a bad personal relationship, can be very harmful to both parties.
I've learnt from sometimes bitter experience that it is only worth getting into a partnership with people you trust and, even then, in circumstances when the benefits outweigh the effort required to form and sustain that partnership - which can be substantial. In particular I keep an eye out for 'partnership junkies' who seem to want to be involved in everything without bringing anything to the table - especially when there's some cash around.
Here are some examples when partnership between companies and organisations can deliver benefits that working alone can never do:
Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - by definition requires partnership and openness and it can deliver immense benefits. In the IS projects I used to run, we diverted 100,000s tonnes of 'waste' per annum from landfill into other uses by bringing organisations together and getting them to think the 'right' way.
Collective purchasing can create and strengthen non-existent or weak supply chains for green technology and greener materials/energy by creating massive and stable demand. As I recounted in The Green Executive, the Royal Mail got together with the other European postal services to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on purchasing hydrogen vehicles which they believe accelerated the development of the technology by a decade.
Standard setting - various sector organisations have worked together to create voluntary standards for everything from supply chain impacts to reporting standards. Other groups have lobbied for higher environmental legislation to penalise those perceived to be not pulling their weight.
Critical friends - some corporates have gone into partnership with NGOs to give themselves someone who can give them a poke with a sharp stick if they drop their standards. The WWF and Coca-Cola's partnership on watershed management in developing countries is a great example.
Mutual learning - my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group brings together some really big companies to learn from each other through structured discussions. This is particularly effective when there is a big diversity in participants as ideas which are commonplace in one sector might be novel in another. One high street chain was reluctant to join the group because there were no other retailers, but my reaction was "that's the whole point!"
Like all aspects of corporate sustainability, partnership is highly beneficial when it is done properly for the right reasons, just don't fall for those who see it as a reason to do nothing. It must lead to clear, mutual benefits for all involved, or you are wasting your time.
Many of us sustainability professionals are idealists - on a mission to save the planet and all the people on it. We genuinely care about doing the right thing and doing right by everyone. There's one main problem with idealism - and that's the real world. The real world is messy and is full of people with maddeningly diverse, and sometimes illogical, viewpoints driven by different pressures, experiences and beliefs.
I was inspired to write this piece after taking part in a discussion on whether business driving Corporate Social Responsibility down through global supply chains was usurping local democracy. My view is that proactive supply chain management has nothing to do with democracy unless it weakens local standards, it takes industry around the world beyond compliance, and it is for the greater good - what's not to like? But my big problem with arguments like these is that all too often they are simply throwing abstract intellectual spanners in the gears of real progress.
It is always easy to find fault with something that works. Veteran green commentator George Monbiot regularly attacks the incredibly successful Feed-In Tariff (FiT) system for funding renewables. His argument is that the many pay the (richer) few for generating clean energy. While that is indeed true, it is normal in today's market economy - our combined grocery shopping makes a few supermarket bosses very rich, but our diet is better than it has ever been, so we rarely complain. Likewise, FiTs have created a solar revolution, driving record investment in clean energy for the benefit for the many, so is it really a problem if those who invest get a reward?
A third example comes from my experience of being second in command politically of green issues at Newcastle City Council. We proposed bringing in a semi-mixed collection of recyclates on the kerbside using lidded wheelie bins to replace the existing open crates which needed to be stored inside. The local green groups screamed blue murder, accusing us of reneging on our environmental commitments by mixing up materials. However the public loved the simplicity and convenience of the new system and the recycling rate jumped by 50% to an impressive 46% of all household waste. The screams faded to a recalcitrant grumble.
Sustainability, like politics, is the art of the possible. Let's not get distracted by the indulgence of nothing ever being good enough for us and get on with the job in hand.
Whether I'm working with the board members of a FTSE100 company or be-overalled shop floor operatives, I usually start my workshops by asking why the business should be interested in sustainability? I then shut up and wait, flip chart marker in hand, for the first answer.
'Saving money' is usually up first, followed by 'legislation', 'customer demand' and 'keeping employees happy' in roughly that order. But my killer question is then "which is the most important?"
Getting the answer to that one right is essential to building a sustainability strategy. And the correct answer for most companies is 'customer demand' (or brand enhancement or marketplace differentiation) as companies who follow this approach tend to benefit from being more competitive and keeping employees happy and saving costs and avoiding compliance problems. Exclusively pursuing cost savings won't do much for the brand which in turn won't win you any new business or give your employees a warm feeling.
It is extremely important to get a crystal clear understanding of your specific business case for sustainability communicated to all your influential executives. If it is not nailed down, then, particularly in these straightened times, the cost cutting imperative will rise and the strategy will be degraded to a tactical plan that won't deliver the real benefits of being a more sustainable business. Vagueness is lethal to your strategy.
I made the short presentation on the business case for sustainability above two and half years ago and it is the most popular on the Terra Infirma YouTube channel by a country mile. If I was recording it now I would sneak a few more nuances in, but the core message remains the same - "Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs."
I'm increasingly educating myself more about organisational development than sustainability per se because I believe very strongly that implementation is much more important than theorising.
So one of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to read more of the late Peter Drucker as he is regarded as the management gurus' guru and there was a Drucker-sized gap on my bookshelf. So I bought 'The Essential Drucker' as a jumping off point as this is a Greatest Hits selection of chapters from his other books from 1942 to 1999.
You would have thought that a 1974 chapter on Purpose and Objectives of a Business would have little relevance to a sustainability change agent in 2013, but Drucker puts social responsibility on a par with marketing, innovation and resources:
Lessons we have learned from the rise of consumerism, or from the attacks on industry for the destruction of the environment, are expensive ways for us to realize that business needs to think through its impacts and its responsibilities for both.
He goes on:
That [social responsibility] objectives need to be built into the strategy of a business, rather than merely be statements of good intentions, needs to stressed here. These are objectives that are needed not because the manager has a responsibility to society. They are needed because the manager has a responsibility to the enterprise.
This 38 year old statement, given Drucker's influence, begs the question why on earth are mainstream companies only now starting to embed social and environmental objectives into their core business strategy? When I wrote The Green Executive, I thought this was cutting edge thinking, but it appears that it's almost 40 years old!
Yes, us, people who are passionate about sustainability, in our spotless fleeces, our well scrubbed faces and neatly trimmed beards. All those good intentions, warm inclusiveness and incredible politeness.
But, frankly, do we have the cojones to do sustainability properly?
I get frustrated when I get involved in debates with fellow practitioners and they say things like "we don't want sustainability to be seen as a dictat from above..."
What?! Why on earth would you not want sustainability to be seen as a priority of senior management? There's almost a fear of rocking the boat when, for 99.99% of organisations, the boat needs some serious rocking.
So, are you prepared to face up to the following necessities:
Getting rid of managers who resist the sustainability programme?
Summarily dropping suppliers who are not doing sustainability properly as a clear message to the rest of the supply chain?
Killing off profitable product lines which are incompatible with sustainability targets?
Setting seriously ambitious stretch targets to jolt the organisation out of business as usual?
Holding people in positions of power to account for the sustainability performance of their empire?
These may be uncomfortable positions to take, but they are the things that set the leading organisations apart from the rest - and let's face it, they're standard behaviour for organisations trying to improve their economic performance, and is sustainability not just as important?
So, let's not kid ourselves, this is not a hold-hands-around-the-campfire love in. Sustainability is serious business.
I spent yesterday running a sustainability strategy workshop for directors and senior managers of a FTSE100 company. They didn't disappoint - they challenged, they argued, they what-if'd, they demanded evidence and data - everything you would expect from the calibre of people running such a large, complex enterprise. They certainly made me work for my money.
I've learnt through experience to be quite flexible with the programme of my workshops, but despite having given a significant amount of additional time early on to debate the business case for sustainability, it was the subject we kept coming back to, still dominating the discussion during the wash-up at the end.
This doesn't surprise me as I don't think most organisations truly pin down the business case as it applies to them. Many of us can recite the list - compliance, reduced costs, recruitment and retention of employees, attracting and retaining customers, new business opportunities along with less obvious examples like resource security and asset value protection - but how do they relate? This is vitally important when you have to, say, decide when should you spend to save and when should you spend to invest in the brand?
Interestingly, those who invest in the brand often deliver cost savings, but those who require a return on investment rarely get the brand enhancement. When Sir Stuart Rose put £200m into Marks & Spencer's Plan A, he did it to protect the venerable chain store's reputation as the trusted brand on the British high street and didn't expect to see that money again. But Plan A has returned the investment and indeed made a profit. Conversely, every business worth its salt is trying to drive down energy, water and waste costs, but few if any of them will get the halo that Plan A gives M&S.
But the important thing is that Rose knew precisely what his business priority was - the brand. Pinning down the business case in that way gave him and the Plan A team the clarity and direction to develop and deliver a highly effective sustainability strategy. And that's why taking so much time in my workshop to explore the business case was essential to take the programme forward.
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
I'm not convinced this is the case - particularly in the sustainability field where I frequently find people of normal intellectual ability seemingly comfortable with pursuing two conflicting goals. UK PM David Cameron was at it yesterday in front of the parliamentary Liaison Committee. He claimed to be pursuing both a green economy and a gas/fracking 'revolution' where, for once, that 'and' can only be an 'or'.
Holding two conflicting views like this is said to cause 'cognitive dissonance' - a uncomfortable, conflicting mental state, yet so many people carry such a dichotomy merrily along with them without a care.
For the sustainability practitioner, this is dangerous. You get assured that things will change, sustainability projects will start and bad practice will end. Yet business as usual always seems to live on like the B-movie zombie that will never die.
The magical antidote to this disease is clarity.
About a year ago I was pondering why so many of the outputs of my workshops fell into what I thought was the 'bleeding obvious' category yet my clients were delighted with the results. I had a minor epiphany when I realised that my prime goal should not be to drive workshop participants to make intellectual breakthroughs (although those do happen and are very welcome), but to make the implicit explicit.
Once everything is explicit, the synergies and conflicts become very clear. And in terms of sharpening people's understanding of what must change, that clarity is priceless.
There's an old time management trope where a professor stands in front of his class and fills a jar full of rocks and asks is it full. The class says yes, so the prof adds some pebbles which trickle into the gaps and asks the question again. Again the class say "it is full", so he adds sand which fills the remaining gaps. The prof empties out the jar, separates out the three elements and then puts the sand in first, followed by the pebbles but few of the rocks fit in the top. The moral of the story is that you have to tackle life's important things first and leave the trivialities to later.
This came to mind when I got into another "is a plastic bag ban a good idea?" debate on Twitter. Proponents say such a ban is highly symbolic and can help build momentum. I tend to believe that the benefits are rather small for such a big effort and that it may cause people to sit back and say "There! We've done it! We're green!" They've filled their jar with sand and there's not much space for any rocks.
That's not to say that getting some quick wins in the bag (or jar...) is a bad thing, but it can't be at the expense of big issues. Organisations that adopt incremental targets often find themselves in this position, expending all their energy hunting down increasingly rare small changes and running out of steam. Occasionally some of those changes will actually obstruct big changes by, say, investing too much in improving existing infrastructure when it should really be replaced with a greener alternative.
Organisations that set ambitious stretch targets, however, tend to start working out how they're going to address the big issues much earlier and avoid this trap. They can do this alongside the smaller improvements, but make sure they are all compatible - after all, by mixing up the addition of rocks, pebbles and sand, the jar will fill up nicely.
By the way, my favourite version of the story that after the professor puts the sand in around the pebbles, he then pours in two pints of beer. He turns to the class and says "And that goes to show that no matter how full your life is, there's always space for a couple of pints." A lesson for everyone!
Last Thursday I went to the North East Recycling Forum Annual Conference - one of the few events I intend as a punter. This partly because I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces and partly because the content is always better than all those identikit commercial green conferences in London.
To open, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management gave an overview of the UK's waste sector. It was very noticeable that Wales is shooting ahead of the other regions of the UK and has hit a 53% household waste recycling rate, compared to 43% in England.
"Why was this?" came a question from the floor. The answer given was that the Welsh Assembly has signed up to the One Planet principles at the very highest level and they develop strategies and make decisions through that prism. By contrast, English waste policy is managed by 5 different Whitehall department and is treated with different priority in each (It has to be said that Eric Pickles came in for a bit of a hammering from speakers and delegates alike.)
Politics aside, we can take three lessons from this which can be applied to any sustainability strategy:
Have a clear vision;
Secure proper buy-in at the highest level (not just lip service);
Proactively pursue that vision with determination and drive.
In the meantime, well done Wales! (and despite the name, I'm not Welsh).
The last three Christmases I have published "Pearls of Wisdom" - short compendia of wise words on CSR/green business/corporate responsibility. The first two (2009 and 2010) were compiled from contributors to The Green Executive and Vol 3 last year was crowd sourced from your good selves.
This year I'm doing the crowd sourcing again. I'm after real insights for readers - no platitudes or clichés, please - and this year we're going to impose the ubiquitous 140 character tweet limit.
Feel free to submit extracts from your wisdom published elsewhere as long as you own the copyright. Contributors who make the cut will see their wise words in a pdf document similar to previous years, along with their name, organisation and URL. Editor's decision is final (and power goes to my head).
Long before the phrase was demeaned by cheap TV talent shows, 'X Factor' referred to that difficult to ascertain quality that set the best ahead of the rest. For most entertainers the X Factor is the ability to project charisma to the audience. Everyone can learn to do this better, but obviously not everybody makes it to the top.
So what's the X Factor in sustainability? What single factor distinguishes those who are forging ahead from those stumbling in roughly the right direction? What would I bottle and sell if I could?
The answer is undoubtedly 'Leadership'.
It takes leadership to set ambitious targets.
It takes leadership to hold the organisation to those targets.
It takes leadership to identify and exploit new opportunities in the low carbon agenda.
It takes leadership to inspire employees to rise to the challenge.
It takes leadership to challenge those holding the organisation back.
It takes leadership to put a stop to unsustainable activities.
It takes leadership to redesign products and services from scratch for sustainability.
It takes leadership to kill off unsustainable product lines.
It takes leadership to remove people who are never going to get on board.
It takes leadership to build the supply chain you need.
It takes leadership to drag your peers and competitors along with you.
This is another reason why I can't stand the touchy-feely image of much of the corporate sustainability debate. Taking sustainability seriously is not about hugging trees, but facing up to a really tough corporate transformation mission. That's why I wrote a book, The Green Executive, about it.
We're in the midst of party political conference season and one thing you will notice in any discussion about sustainability and climate change is the focus on shiny new technology. You will not of course hear anything about the destruction of the old unsustainable way of doing things. This is for one very good reason - no-one ever got far in politics by emphasising the down side of what they want to do. But, as the cliché goes, you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs.
There is some irony in the title of this post - that to build a sustainable society, we must destroy the old one. But sustainable in the ecological sense does not mean unchanging, merely the concept of operating within natural limits in an equitable way. Like nature itself, a sustainable society will be constantly evolving, not frozen in aspic.
There are two ways to approach the transition. Firstly the politicans' method - build the new and let the old wither on the vine. And to a certain extent this is happening - as Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall point out, the more renewable energy the country produces, the less gas is burnt. Rising renewable capacity will eventually lead to reduced gas capacity as who will build what isn't needed? The upsides are that it is easy to sell and usually produces a robust end product, the downside is speed of change as the system evolves.
The other way is the machismo approach. Companies like InterfaceFLOR appear to relish deleting product ranges which are incompatible with their sustainability targets. They see this as a badge of pride - revolution rather than evolution. This is obviously easier in an organisation than it is in the democratic system as business leaders don't tend to have the Daily Mail breathing down their necks chasing headlines, but it is fast and decisive.
The answer will no doubt be a mishmash of the two - large scale evolution powered and accelerated by many medium scale revolutions in the value chains that provide our material quality of life. But we can't duck the fact that change requires destruction as well as creation.
"We haven't a hope in hell in meeting this target, but we're going to try anyway."
"The management redefined our target to one which we were going to meet anyway."
These are two real, if slightly paraphrased, quotes I have heard recently which show two polar opposite attitudes to sustainability targets in major corporations. Guess which one is doing better environmentally - and financially?
Odysseus famously lashed himself to the mast of his ship so he could hear the voices of the sirens whose song would seduce him onto the rocks, but wouldn't be able to give into them and change from his true course. Sustainability is difficult, I make no bones about it. But, as the Green Executive concluded, persistence is key. There is always the temptation to go easy on yourself and fall for the those siren voices and try and cheat the system - this usually fails as everyone can see such cheats a mile off.
Are you prepared to lash yourself to the mast and tough out the tough times? It's called leadership.