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26 May 2017

Sustainability Strategy and Engagement: two sides to the same coin

team meeting

I had a meeting with a potential new client this morning. They want a sustainability strategy, but most of the conversation revolved about engagement of internal stakeholders. That's because, without engagement, a strategy will sit on a shelf gathering dust.

If you have engagement and no strategy, you're limiting yourself to incremental improvements in sustainability performance. In fact I know organisations who have wasted their high levels of engagement because the lack of strategy meant they hit diminishing returns and employees started to lose patience with slowing progress.

While Terra Infirma's two main streams of consultancy work are strategy and engagement, in practice there is a massive overlap between them.

 

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5 May 2017

Breaking out of the Sustainability Silo


This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from 'Bill' (name has been changed) which many face – how do you put together a Sustainability Strategy in a vacuum? I explain three steps to breaking out of the Sustainability Silo and getting key decision makers involved.

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.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.

 

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30 March 2017

Let's build the Sustainable future we want to see!

Half empty or half full - pessimism or optimism

It was my birthday yesterday, so I went off on a very gentle bike ride with Mrs K involving lots of coffee and cake, burgers and beer, and pretty much ignored the news. However, my twitter feeds were filled with howls of liberal despair as Theresa May triggered Article 50 and the formal start of Brexit, and across the pond, Donald Trump started tearing up Barack Obama's climate change legislation.

So where are we?

We are where we are. Now that might sound as empty a phrase as 'Brexit means Brexit', but it is true. There's not much we can do about the events of the last few days.

But we can decide what we are going to do tomorrow. Or where we want to be in 10 years time. And neither Theresa May or Donald Trump can stop us (10 years presents a couple of electoral cycles in most democracies).

So let's do it!

In January's Ask Gareth, I went into this in a bit more detail – maybe an apt time for a recap.

 

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24 March 2017

Keeping the passion in Sustainability after the honeymoon


This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from Dan – how do you keep Sustainability running after the honeymoon. My basic answer is that it is too late to consider it then and I suggest three ways you can design your Sustainability programme to be self sustaining.

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.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.

Seven steps to a Sustainability StrategyAnd don't forget, there's much more of this advice in our new white paper Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy. We're getting some great feedback on this guide, so make sure you check it out!

 

 

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6 March 2017

Sod's Law & Sustainability

escher

I have a tonne of stuff to do this week, yet I’m writing this in my local NHS Walk-in Centre waiting to get my eye checked out after an unfortunate gardening incident yesterday. It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you want to get off to a flying start, you notice your shoelaces are undone.

I often find Sustainability practitioners waiting for the perfect moment to launch their new project, venture or strategy. And, of course that perfect moment never comes. New legislation, a change in CEO, Brexit – there’s always something that pops up to spoil the moment.

So what can we do? Are we doomed to sit in perpetual stasis?

Well the first thing I did here in the waiting room was to remind myself of my long term priorities, then sketch down what I’m going to do this week and today to help meet those goals. That put my mind at rest, dissolved most of the frustration and focussed me on forward motion.

When I’m working with clients, I use a technique called backcasting to do the same on a grander scale. Instead of trying to work through the short term noise, we work backwards from the ultimate goal to work out what we need to do now to hit the right trajectory. After that exercise, usually carried out with key stakeholders, the way ahead appears clear and straightforward, no matter what life is throwing at us from the sidelines.

 

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1 March 2017

Build the Sustainability Strategy that works for you

structure

Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.

What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.

Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.

There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).

Strategy + culture = success.

Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.

So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.

Don't forget to download our new white paper: Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy

 

 

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22 February 2017

Free Download!

Seven steps to a Sustainability Strategy

To get my new white paper "Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy", simply fill in your details below and the download link will be send to your e-mail inbox.

 

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15 February 2017

Is long term thinking always a good thing?

Planet of the Apes Liberty

A couple of times in recent weeks and months I have heard/read calls for 'long term thinking' for Sustainability - 2050 seems to have a particular allure due to UN climate targets. As is all too common in our field, there is no challenge to the assumption that this is a good thing. But in my experience, setting organisational targets too far in the future, is counter-productive. Here's why:

1. People, particularly key decision makers, assume they will be on the golf course or pushing up the daisies by then and don't see the targets as their problem, so you create drift;

2. For everyone, 2050 seems a long time away, so there will be plenty of time to do something about those targets when all this short term stuff gets sorted;

3. The assumption that technology will come to our rescue, also negating the need to act now – solar powered hover cars and all that.

In other words, we need timeframes which create a sense of urgency while giving time to make substantial change. I find 7-10 years is optimum for most organisations with significant assets; you can go a bit shorter in, say, the service sector. If you are wedded to 2050, make sure you set some interim targets (2025?) to create that urgency.

I suppose a bit like 'Think Global, Act Local', we need to 'Think Long Term, Act Now.'

 

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6 February 2017

Will Sustainability get Trumped?

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.

You can see all previous editions here.

 

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1 February 2017

Why "Go Green, Save Money" can hold you back...

redtape

Over the last couple of days I've been writing about understanding the business case for sustainability, why it varies for different companies and why it is imperative to understand how it affects you. What bothers me is the way most commenters have defaulted to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset. I'm clearly not getting my message across!

I can see why people default to 'save money', you can and probably will save money through your sustainability programme. For some companies this is a strong driver, but for most, keeping regulators and customers happy will be much more important for the business. After all, breaking compliance can lead to product recalls or plant shut downs, disappointing your customers can lead to loss of market share; both of which will have a much bigger financial impact than shaving a few % off the energy bill. From a positive point of view, raising turnover by gaining market share or exploiting new emerging markets will dwarf any efficiency savings.

This is extremely important as if you stick to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset you will not do make any of the step changes required to get your business fit for the 21st Century. You'll be debating returns on investment while your competitors plunder your market share.

I recorded the following video on the business case a few years ago. It's getting a bit long in the tooth, but the core message still rings true.

 

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31 January 2017

The Sweetspot of Sustainability Success

Business Case Venn

I love a good Venn diagram so, when I was reviewing the contents of this week's Business Case for Sustainability webinar, I realised there was an interlocking-circles shaped gap in the introduction. So, I came up with the above.

It illustrates a basic principle of Sustainability success: when Sustainability programmes are synergistic with business interests (and, more importantly, are seen to be synergistic) then that programme will in itself be (small 's') sustainable. Conversely, if you design a Sustainability programme which doesn't fit with business interests then you will have a constant battle to keep it on the agenda at all, never mind making significant changes. First bump in the road and you can say goodbye to the commitment.

What does this mean in practice? Well if your Sustainability programme is driven by customer demand, then you focus Sustainability efforts on those customer demands, rather than, say, cost reductions. If, like one of my clients, you are selling reasonably complex products globally, then compliance is at the fore (eg eradicating problem chemicals) rather than cost cutting. However, if you are a bulk commodity producer you may find that a cost reduction focus will give your Sustainability programme traction with the powers that be.

I sometimes get accused of cynicism when I present ideas like this, but idealism is the enemy of success. And don't forget this pragmatism is just a starting point; once you have embedded Sustainability in the organisation as a friend, not a a foe, you can work to increase the area of overlap by converging the two circles. But finding that starting point is crucial.

 

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29 December 2016

2016 at Terra Infirma Towers

If 2016 was a tumultuous one in world affairs – Brexit, Trump, Syria, all your childhood icons dying – it was a relatively calm one here at Terra Infirma Towers. It was a year of solid delivery rather than breakthrough and, possibly related, for me personally, spending a lot of time in physio to try (semi-successfully) to get the little finger I dislocated at the start of January working again. Many of my blog posts in 2016 were written in the coffee shop of the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle (a client of ours, so I wrote it off as background research!).

From a work point of view, we delivered on several major projects started in 2015. Two of these, a research project on employee engagement for a major sustainability leader, and a sustainability strategy for NHSBT, will become publicly available next year. I intend to delve quite deeply into those for your benefit when they are launched as some of the content and lessons are really cool, if I may say so myself. A notable new client was Durham University, who we helped to embed sustainability into its mainstream engineering degree syllabus – a real passion of mine.

The Northern England Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) continued delivering top value for its members. What I really like is when I see conclusions from CoSM shaping the sustainability programmes of members in practice. The Group will motor on in 2017 and we're looking to put together a Southern branch.

I put a lot of work updating our Green Academy webinar programme this year and we had some  great new companies signing up. If you want to try it out for free, our 2017 taster session is on 18 January.

So that just leaves me to thank all our clients, partners, associates, friends and family for their support in 2016 – and looking forward to 2017 and whatever it may hold!

 

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2 December 2016

Let's Build the Sustainable Future we want to see

sunrise

After the groundswell of hope after the Paris Agreement this time last year, 2016 hasn't been a great year for sustainability in general and climate change in particular, cumulating in the election of a (probable) climate change sceptic to the White House.

But I am cheered by the 400 businesses who wrote to the President Elect and told him to keep on the low carbon trajectory. Don't forget the much repeated lament of anti-capitalist activists as to how much power the corporate world wields. Much as I'm a staunch democrat, if business has that power and uses it for good, I'm not going to complain. That's true Corporate Social Responsibility.

So I call on every corporation to create a vision of a sustainable future for their business eco-system and develop a strategy to deliver on it. Don't wait for politicians to lead; if you forge a sustainable path, they will follow (and, some at least will try to claim credit - just let them). Build the future you want to see.

 

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30 November 2016

Beware the Dilution of Sustainability...

failure-rateDuring her leadership campaign in the summer, PM Theresa May promised to shake up corporate governance. She would give workers a place on company boards and make shareholders' votes on executive pay binding – all things her party blocked during the coalition years of 2010-2015. But when the proposals were published yesterday, they had been watered down to a level of toothlessness.

This reminded me of a diagram which someone sent me recently (I understand it was produced by Bain&Co, but I don't have further details of the source). It shows that Sustainability projects have a much better failure rate than other projects, but suffer from an extremely high level of dilution – in fact very few succeed without some kind of compromise.

I would love to know the exact reasons for this. Some may be difficult to overcome such as immature technology and/or supply chains (although that can be sorted out), but I suspect much of it comes down to nervousness by decision makers, tiptoeing their way through unfamiliar territory.

My solution to the latter problem is to make sure those decision makers are involved in developing the proposals. Psychology has shown that when people are presented with a change, they exaggerate the risks and play down the benefits, but when they generate the change idea themselves, that flips to overestimating benefits and playing down risks. I have had a boardroom bump up Sustainability targets by taking this approach – the complete opposite of the pattern shown by that diagram.

 

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21 November 2016

Sustainability by Default

 

grass feet small

Quite a bit of my work recently has been around taking a Sustainability Strategy and embedding it into the organisation. While gaining buy-in from employees is a big part of how I approach this (my preferred option is to get the buy-in of key people by involving them in developing the strategy, but that's another story), if we are to truly make sustainability the new business as usual then it has to be, almost by definition, the default option whenever decisions arise.

This is not a trivial challenge. Many of my clients have been in existence for 50+ years (some over 100) and they have slowly accumulated ways of doing things based on the largely linear, fossil fuel based economy which arose from the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly we are trying to change all that in just a few years.

On the positive side, fast change is very possible - sometimes destructively so, as when Kodak was decimated by the very digital photography it had invented but sidelined. There is also my favourite mantra, the 80:20 Rule, which holds that a very small number of changes will deliver the vast majority of results. If you are smart, you can identify those key changes and put your efforts into making them happen, rather than sapping your time and effort on trying to get thousands of people to switch off their phone chargers overnight.

While many 'sustainability by default' initiatives involve 'nudging' people by, say, setting printers to print duplex by default, there are some much bigger gains to be won by, for example, tweaking investment appraisals to account for full carbon costs or putting energy reduction targets into the personal objectives of every site manager. It is this kind of hardwiring of sustainability into core systems that will deliver year after year with little or no further intervention.

Isn't that what we're trying to achieve?

 

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16 September 2016

Do you have a Sustainability Strategy? Really?

pencil figure checklistWhat is a Sustainability Strategy? Is it just a document containing all your targets? Is it something to show your stakeholders? Is it a baseline against which you can measure progress? Or is it something more than that?

I saw this quote from Stuart Cross on general business strategy this morning which applies equally to the subject of sustainability:

A strategy doesn't just impact the 'big' investment choices; it drives a myriad of decisions of actions taken by colleagues and managers from across your organisation on a daily basis. Like a magnet being waved over iron filings, a strategy creates alignment and ensures that everyone is pointing in the same direction.

I really like that magnet analogy and it applies to all the truly great sustainability strategies: M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero or Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan. These transcend mere documents or targets, they become more like a Roman legion's standard for the troops to follow into battle - and rally around when things go wrong.

Does your sustainability strategy do this? Or does it just tick the boxes?

 

 

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22 August 2016

Do you want Sustainability or not? Lessons from the Olympics

Jess Ennis

The story has been told many times, but it's a good one if you're a Brit. Thoroughly embarrassed by GB's pathetic single-gold-medal showing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1994, Prime Minister John Major diverted National Lottery funding into British Sport. As the curtain drops on the (main) Rio Olympics 20 years later, we've just pushed China into third place on the medal table for the first time since the latter started competing.

Elements of the press are starting to react uncomfortably to this success, even likening it to the chest-thumpingly patriotic Eastern Bloc displays of the Cold War era. They fret particularly about GB's decidedly Darwinian funding formula – win medals and you get a shedload more dosh to win more (which buys the best facilities, coaches and kit), lose out and you get nada. Sorry, basketball, but we spent your cash on new cycling skin suits.

My immediate reaction to this soul searching is: do you want to win or not?

If not, that's OK, taking part is fine. But don't complain if we can't deliver top level sporting results with non-competitive thinking, because it's one or the other. Personally, I'm quite enjoying the winning.

I see a strong parallel with Corporate Sustainability. All too often people who claim their organisation takes Sustainability seriously tell me that they would never ditch a supplier on Sustainability grounds, never consider axing an unsustainable product, never invest in developing new sustainable technologies. They are uncomfortable at targeting key decision makers for engagement ("we believe it's everybody's responsibility"), putting sustainability targets into those individual's personal objectives (ditto) or moving them along if they're incompatible with the strategy (ditto).

In the wider environmental movement, we often see green activists campaigning against green solutions - witness George Monbiot's writings against the very solar feed in tariffs which are delivering a renewables revolution. I agree with Monbiot that FiTs aren't perfectly fair (they divert cash from all bill payers into the pockets of those who can afford to invest in solar), but doing nothing is much, much worse. Anti-capitalists such as Naomi Klein claim, conveniently, that we will only tackle climate change by replacing capitalism with an vague and untried alternative which may not actually exist.

So, we can get our hands dirty delivering on Sustainability now, messy compromises and all, or we can wait indefinitely for a perfect solution, because it's one or the other. I know which one I'm doing.

 

Photo: © 2012, David Jones, Creative Commons License

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15 August 2016

Stealth Sustainability?

"A

As a British cycling fan, I've been throughly enjoying the team's continuing success in the Olympic velodrome. One of the remarkable characters is sprinter Jason Kenny, who has just picked up his 5th gold and is likely to get a 6th tomorrow, yet he could knock on my door the day after and I'd assume he was delivering a parcel. Kenny deliberately keeps a low profile, winning little between Olympics, before turning up every four years and destroying the field. Fellow 5-gold legend Sir Steve Redgrave is currently using his haul of medals to flog breakfast cereal – not sure I'll see Kenny plastered across the aisles anytime soon.

It got me thinking about those companies who lead on Sustainability and make a big fuss about it and those who prefer to operate under the radar. Which is best?

Going public raises the stakes. Like a sports celebrity your every move will be scrutinised and assessed, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This can be a powerful driver for continued change, and an inspiration to others, but it can lead to a focus on superficial, media friendly actions which are easily digested by the public. Body Shop is one company which bragged of its environmental principles and spent many years fighting off allegations of greenwash by investigative journalists.

For the last year I've been working with carpet tile giant Interface. The company has long been my choice for most sustainable large business in the world, yet they rarely trouble green business league tables compiled in the media (which may reflect the arbitrariness of the latter more than anything else). But it surprises me how many sustainability practitioners I meet who are only vaguely aware of Interface and its quite incredible Mission Zero programme. In many ways they are the Jason Kenny of Sustainability – delivering world class results while flying under the radar.

Which is best? Consumer-facing and/or high profile companies should probably lean towards the razzmatazz not least because many of their competitors will be doing so. But they will have to appreciate 'tall poppy syndrome' – the media will be watching them like hawks.

For lower profile or more specialist businesses, they are unlikely to get much high profile coverage simply because of the way the media works, and should focus on telling their story directly to the stakeholders who matter such as customers, potential employees and regulators.

I was going to say 'horses for courses', but, given my opening metaphor, 'bikes for parcours' may be more appropriate!

 

Photo © U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

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25 July 2016

Ready to take your Sustainability up a league?

steep climb

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.

 

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6 July 2016

Get a new perspective on Sustainability

Frame

Have you ever noticed how much you notice when you are on holiday? Wander around a strange place and details leap out at you in a way they never do in your home town. There's a whole genre of travel writing based on such observations, but you rarely, if ever, get anyone writing in such detail about their own neighbourhood (Xavier de Maistre famously wrote Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre to parody travel writing). Familiarity closes our minds, travel broadens them.

I was reminded of this when a client recently told me it was great to get a fresh pair of eyes (mine!) in to sort out a couple of sticking points in his corporation's sustainability strategy. One of the most important things an outsider can do, as I did in this case, is question implicit assumptions – the way your mind closes down options subconsciously. I now do more coaching and facilitation than traditional 'clipboard consulting' as this broadening of the mind can make an order of magnitude greater impact than a report of recommendations gathering dust on somebody's shelf.

How are you going to get yourself out of your comfort zone today?

 

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