Years ago at a wedding, I found myself making small talk with a friend's boyfriend who worked in famine relief in Africa. I'd recently been involved in a campaign to relieve unfair third world debt, so in an attempt to keep our rather stilted conversation going, I asked him what he thought of that campaign. His answer shocked me:
"You'd lose control over them." he said shaking his head.
"Them" It was like he was talking about infants, not one of the most vibrant continents on earth. And the whiff of colonialism was unmistakeable.
If we look at all the big sexual abuse scandals: Weinstein, sports coaches, paedophile priests, it has always been a case of the powerful exploiting the powerless and the Oxfam scandal fits right into this mould. Those Oxfam officials in Haiti clearly saw themselves as colonial overlords with droit de seigneur over 'the natives'.
As Lord Acton famously put it "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
But, how do so many get away with so much for so long? Why does nobody say anything?
One of my great frustrations in life is the way gang mentality rules in large organisations. If you ever try to make a complaint about an injustice you will find your point slowly sandpapered down to something which can be 'resolved' by 'lessons have been learnt' or some such rot. I once received a rather convoluted argument explaining how someone libelling me (which wasn't disputed) didn't breach the organisation's code of conduct re 'respecting other people'. Because nothing says 'respect' quite like defamation.
At present, whistleblowing is rarely a good career move: you'll be made to feel uncomfortable in the post and, if you look for a new job, others may worry they're taking on a liability.
So what can we do?
I take some comfort in the new breed of whistleblowing policies which make it a duty to report wrongdoing. Perhaps if enough people get disciplined alongside perpetrators for not reporting corrupt practice, it could start to shift the paradigm. I live in hope!
Interesting report from advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising this week. They polled 100 CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about attitudes to Sustainability. 88% said they valued Sustainability, but 70% were struggling to do so.
I found the former statistic encouraging but the latter baffling. Having worked with a couple of hundred SMEs over the years, I've found their agility often makes it easier for them to adopt Sustainability principles than their larger competitors. Of the 18 interviews in my book The Green Executive, I quote the SMEs examples more than the others. Instant decision-making, short levers of control and relatively few assets mean change can happen very quickly indeed.
In my experience, the difference between those doing so and those who aren't is almost always the attitude of the boss. Leadership is the critical factor as usual.
So perhaps many of those 88% aren't being entirely honest with themselves – or the interviewers.
I cannot recall a single television programme in my lifetime which has had a bigger impact on public discourse than Blue Planet II (Cathy Come Home was 5 years before I was born). As I've commented before, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the public and business to make a big leap forward in Sustainability.
The only problem is that the War on Plastic is tending towards a 'plastic is evil' meme. As Julia Hailes, author of the groundbreaking Green Consumer Guide wrote last month, we're risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plastic is a fabulous material – light, durable, flexible – provided it is in the right place, i.e. not our oceans, hedgerows or landfills.
Shifting to loose vegetables, for example, could cause more waste problems than it solves. Plastic packaging fulfils an important role in minimising food waste – never mind the carbon impact of that waste, we'd need much more farmland to feed us which means impacting on natural habitats.
Likewise, when my client Interface were looking for sustainable raw materials for carpet tiles to replace virgin nylon, they could not find a source of 'natural' material that they could exploit sustainably at the scale required. Instead, they concluded the best raw material for new carpet was... drumroll... old carpet.
The impacts of going plastic-free would be enormous. So the big post-Blue Planet II message must be promoting the circular economy. Not eradicating plastic, but designing products and systems to capture it post-use and use it over and over again.
Regular readers can't have helped notice my big personal goal for the year is to do a triathlon. As I mentioned last month my swimming came on leaps and bounds - my distance going from 250m to 600m in a couple of weeks. But I knew there was a problem with my stroke as my legs were too low in the water. "I know," I thought, brightly "I'll check out YouTube for some tips."
It turned out I wasn't really doing front crawl at all, more of an overarm doggy-paddle. No problem I thought, I just need to adjust my timing to stretch out before each pull. So I tried it and could hardly do 50m without gasping for breath.
My problem is that doing the stroke properly engages the large back muscles. In theory this should give me much more power, but of course those muscles have been sitting idle for years (ever?) while I've trained up my shoulders, so I'm pretty much starting over again. Plus, my breathing rhythm needs to change and that hasn't proven easy.
Mrs K tells me my swimming looks 1000% better than before, but I feel awkward, clumsy and slow. Towards the end of each length I find myself heading back into old bad habits and have to correct myself again.
This is exactly why change management in organisations is so difficult. We're all creatures of habit and breaking that habit not only requires 'awareness' but building the new routine into normal behaviour while staying away from the temptation of the old habits. A Sustainability awareness presentation is like the YouTube videos I watched – the hard work comes afterwards to make the new routine stick.
Six weeks of discipline to change a habit is the rule of thumb according to some behavioural experts. Does your Sustainability engagement take this into consideration? I don't find many that do.
In the meantime, I'm going to keep reaching out - literally and metaphorically!
I saw a blog post last week entitled something along the lines of "Forget Carbon. The Latest Crisis Is Plastics." This would have annoyed me massively at the best of times, but particularly so given that Kick Ass Idea no 1 of my 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018 webinar last week was "No Fads".
The point I was making was to avoid the entreaties of those constantly pumping out the 'latest thing in Sustainability' – a couple of years ago it was all about Creating Shared Value, then we were told that mindfulness was a prerequisite of Sustainability, now people are desperately trying to work out how blockchain can deliver Sustainability. This flighty faddism over techniques is distracting enough without people saying that, because the full scale of the plastics problem has hit the public consciousness, climate change is no longer a priority.
That, my friends, is highly dangerous bullshit.
One problem becoming clearer does not make another disappear. While it's almost impossible to compare two environmental problems objectively, my subjective opinion is that climate change remains the head and shoulders above the rest purely on the scale and range of its impacts – from extreme weather through sea-level rises to ocean acidification – there is no hiding place.
But, whatever your view on their relative scales, it is not beyond the wit of the human race to tackle two major problems at the same time. In fact one solution – the circular economy – will go a long, long way to tackle both the climate and ocean plastic crises.
A number of taster participants have signed up for the full Green Academy syllabus – if you want to take advantage of the 25% discount offered on the full price of £330 + VAT, then use this link to pay by Paypal or debit/credit cardbefore 31 January 2018.
North Tyneside Council has just announced a new cycling strategy. Which is great, except the authority has recently remodelled two major road junctions and the cycling 'provision' is limited to permitting cyclists to zigzag their way through a maze of pedestrian crossings, complete with 90° changes of direction, rather than giving them any form of priority on the road itself. As we're unlikely to see the JCBs back to fix this omission, it's an opportunity missed.
This illustrates the point that we must be embedding Sustainability into mainstream decision making, not just special projects. It is particularly important in major capital projects as once mistakes are made, it is very difficult to fix them.
As usual, there are two elements to this: procedure and culture. The former determines what should be done and the second determines whether it will be done. My favourite tactic is to involve as many people as possible in developing the procedure as then they will 'own' it automatically rather than you trying to sell it to them.
En route to an early morning meeting today I came across the prone figure of a cyclist on one of our off-road cycle paths. As she clambered to her feet and checked nothing was broken, she said she had thought the sheet of ice across the path was slush and, indeed, it looked as if slush had frozen overnight then started to melt this morning resulting in an incredibly slippy rutted surface.
One of my campaigns as a Councillor is to get the City's strategic cycle routes, of which this is part, gritted in cold weather. We have a transport policy which says that cycling is higher in the transport hierarchy than use of private motor car, yet we grit major roads and not supposedly strategic cycle routes.
To me this illustrates the danger of institutional inertia to your Sustainability plans. Everybody nods when I say strategic cycle routes should be gritted, but nobody actually does it, because that would require quite a number of people going out of their way to do things differently. I'm steeling myself for a battle to use the current weather to get the cycle routes gritted next year – if I'm lucky. Obstinance is an important weapon in the Sustainability practitioners' arsenal.
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