Archive for the ‘Oomph Seminars’ Category


Green Deal

The Green Deal seems to be turning into the epitaph for our “Greenest Ever Government”.

It has hit another major snag. Its latest set of ads, promoting the new structure of the deal, has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority as containing misleading claims. This is normally the territory of payday lenders and budget airlines not flagship government policies. In claiming that the investment in renewables or energy saving a household can easily cover its cost through cost savings and that such an investment will increase the value of the property the DECC came a cropper.

Back in the days when selling off the family silver was in vogue I ran some notable Government privatisation campaigns. The massed ranks of lawyers, bankers and advisors would never have allowed us, a mere advertising agency, to have made any claims that could not be completely supported. How is it that now an important Government campaign can flout the rules so flagrantly… or is it mere ignorance?

My belief is that those constructing the campaign have not immersed themselves in the available data. For it is here that the compelling stories lie. Not in its regurgitation but in its insight and interpretation, using it to demonstrate benefits through drama, wit and style – three things the Green Deal campaign has lacked.

My greatest example of this is from my old chairman, the legendary adman Robin Wight. Many of the most celebrated ads for long time client BMW were created after an interrogation of BMW’s engineers in Munich. For example when we asked them to demonstrate the value of a 6 cylinder engine over a four cylinder one resourceful technician simply placed  a beaker of water on the engine block and revved it to 3000rpm. The meniscus of the water barely stirred. He said that compared to a four cylinder engine the beaker would be shaken up quite violently. And so the classic ad “shaken. not stirred” for the BMW 3 series was created.

Shaken not stirred

Even though today’s media mix is vast and ads do not necessarily work in the same way, some rules haven’t changed. For instance the importance of verifying the details of supporting evidence for advertising claims and the requirement to turn this information into compelling stories not just factual regurgitation.

In the world of sustainability we are overtaken by numbers and data and these are reported in voluminous sustainability reports. What we often seem to fail to do is recognise that the process should not end here but be translated into stories with a compelling idea at their heart in order  to touch the hearts and minds of our audience – even when that audience might have a high level of technical knowledge. Scientists, engineers and financiers are after all mere humans, like the rest of us.

As chance will have it we will be considering some of these areas in our latest Oomph Seminar on “Making Your Sustainability report Matter” in early October. As DECC have found out it is crucial to check and understand your data, but it is also crucial to translate it so it will have meaning for your audience. And only by doing both will your messages really hit home and mere information become differentiating inspiration.

Five attributes of engaging leadership


The latest Oomph Seminar was a thoroughly excellent demonstration of how to generate ideas that excite. Stuart Pickles of LSP Leadership presented a personal view of modern engaged leadership based on a simple five-point model. The short presentation and following conversation certainly made one think about what it is that we need to improve in ourselves as leaders in sustainability. What today really brought home was the value of having really simple ideas, with a receptive and responsive audience who really got into the spirit of self-inquiry and evaluation.

The engaged leader exhibits five characteristics: Humility, Clarity, Courage, Empathy and Energy. All of these are important if, as a leader, you want to engage with those around you. And for leader, we need to recognise we all have the opportunity to lead. Many in the corporate world would recognise the traditional traits of courage and energy, but equally would be surprised or struggle to find many examples of those with empathy and humility. But the ability to listen and understand how others feel is a key to getting people to work with you rather than for you. The days of simply barking out orders are, hopefully, long gone. Organisations where this remains the culture, will probably be finding their best performing people voting with their feet and finding an alternative employer.

Stuart asked us to picture our worst boss.  We could all do this very easily and it was an excellent way to see who we didn’t want to be and something we could measure our own attempts at leadership against. The conversation which followed developed our understanding of our own capabilities as leaders. Leadership isn’t just for the Justin Kings and Paul Polmans of the world. We all seek to effect change in some way – from the basic to the comprehensive.

Demonstrating the success of this Oomph Seminar Dan and I continued the thinking on the journey home. We thought that Stuart’s five attributes could be subdivided and some classified as being more masculine – courage and energy – and some more feminine – empathy and humility. What then struck us was that this balance of masculine and feminine leadership attributes seems to sit on a fulcrum of clarity (gender neutral). In our discussions in the seminar, it soon became apparent that in the world of sustainability leadership, clarity is often a weak point. Our failure to agree on a common definition of sustainability and the likelihood that for each organisation sustainability means something different has meant that clarity (or lack of it) has resulted in poor or ineffectual leadership. Getting the right mixture of all five attributes is key – simply having clarity of vision, without empathy or humility won’t get the job done.

What this image of a set of scales in balance fails to show is that these different attributes need to be used carefully and sometimes one may dominate. As a leader we must be aware of when to switch and change the emphasis. The traditional vision of a sustainability leader – whether corporate or NGO, government or educationalist – is someone with clarity of what is needed from their perspective and passion (please note that passion was never once mentioned during over 2 hours of conversation in the seminar). This passion can often be a negative in that it sometimes translates into an over-developed ego which as Stuart had explained is the enemy of both humility and empathy.

So the trick for the successful leaders in sustainability is performing a very delicate balancing act which allows clarity to come through while remaining connected and engaged with those around them. A trick few have successfully performed.

Oomph Seminar Untangles Sustainable Supply Chains


Ok, well that’s all sorted then – we have untangled supply chains and come up with what really matters. I might be rather exaggerating the point but there was general agreement that the most recent Oomph Seminar did have a quite a lot of oomph.

This session on Supply Chains has been a while in the making and has been through a number of revisions to get the topic and structure to work.  In the end the discussion and format of this session is one that perhaps sets a new benchmark for what can be achieved – while at the same time there is room for improvement.

Let’s be under no illusion this is a complex topic and with a couple of centuries of experience present in the room, we all knew that much has been talked about and much done to try to get things better in a global supply chain. To get things moving I talked in summary about the work Vivian Partnership had done with BSI on Responsible Sourcing Standardisation, but this perhaps only served to direct the conversation away from standards onto deeper topics.

As always there was a very high level of interaction from the start. We asked everyone what their number one issue was in terms of supply chain management and received a varied set of topics, from which we crafted three for further debate in order to find some solutions. What was noteworthy about the issues was that, while varied, there was common ground. As is so often the case communication (or the lack of effective and meaningful communication) was a recurring theme.

Without going into details, these are the highlights. All agreed that increased collaboration and transparency are essential if we are to untangle the supply chain. The group of Oomphers was very varied, from large multi-nationals, smaller companies and 2degrees network, as well as a scattering of consultants. The group had a myriad of supply chain issues from subcontractor performance issues to global suppliers. Sometimes we might be guilty of pigeonholing supply chain issues as the preserve of supermarkets and major brands – but all organisations, large and small, buy stuff.

What was fascinating and so emblematic of the Oomph approach was significant shift in position occurred as the conversation progressed. We started the conversation agreeing that shared values were one of the keys to success. But we finished the conversation focusing on shared behaviours rather than values. Values should be specific to an organisation while the behaviours are what tend to be common. By agreeing and aligning behaviours throughout a supply chain, it was felt that greater change and improvement, and greater trust and transparency would result. This might appear a rather fine distinction, but we felt that focussing on values resulted in suppliers and customers simply employing a tick-box approach to supply chain management. This would not shift the status quo from the traditional supplier, customer relationship to the more sophisticated and necessary partnership approach.

By engaging properly you release mutual and wider benefit. One example which resonated with many was a leading supermarket supplier wanted to install ground source heat pumps to improve productivity of its herbs, but couldn’t afford the capital investment. The supermarket then changed the contract period from one to three years which enabled the grower to secure a bank loan. All were winners and the overall impact of the production of the herbs was reduced. A win-win-win situation.

Internal culture change is as important as the relationship between customer and supplier and is as hard to achieve. Rather than focussing on the process of how to achieve it we asked what success might look like. We really like the simplicity of this answer: internally people are asking for more information, wanting to learn and wanting to lead. Bear that in mind.

So, to summarise – it’s about behaviours and not values. Decide on the behaviours that are acceptable, communicate and engage (not the same thing), monitor it on both sides (the customer’s behaviours are as critical as the suppliers) and share. We think that companies should start using a different term – stop talking about contracts between supplier and customer and start talking about agreements. This shift would have a part to play in building the level of trust between the parties involved.

The session was also an endorsement of the Oomph approach. Only a couple of people who attended had been to an Oomph before. I think what both Dan and I really enjoyed was how after an initial understandable degree of uncertainty and caution, this soon disappeared and everyone (and I mean everyone) really got stuck in. Thank you to everyone who came and as one comment on the feedback put it – “very enjoyable – good job”.

#responsiblerenewables Oomph Seminar

photoWe’ve just finished the latest Oomph Seminar and it was a rip roaring success (and I’m exhausted). There will be much more from this particular seminar as we have now started the process of creating a Manifesto for #responsiblerenewables. Not a boring, snoring manifesto a la all political parties, but a really cool and engaging one that uses all the senses in getting its message over (well, maybe not smell).

Having decorated the walls in brown paper, people started to get a sense of what would unfold as soon as they entered the room. By the end we had an avant garde expression in lurid and fluorescent colours (post-it notes to you and me). The carousel technique in workshops is nothing new but when one has the right combination of people, topic and preparation, the results dazzled even the workshop weary.

Creating a manifesto by committee is always going to be messy but having an unusual structure really got this going very quickly and in the right direction. We had found a template by Alexandra Franzen – a blow-your-mind manifesto. Although I think the structure was originally designed for those who want a personal manifesto – its application in this workshop proved its versatility. The first four parts: “I believe…”, “I want to live in a world where…”, “Here’s what I know for sure…” and “Always wear sunscreen” (hints and tips) when used as a carousel really provided an excellent framework which allowed everyone to explore and uncover what we meant by #responsiblerenewables. We didn’t really know how it would turn out, but our expectations certainly were exceeded.

The trick with making a carousel work in a workshop situation is to generate the energy and belief that this rather random and slightly eccentric model would work. We had a great crowd who truly believed and leapt in with both feet. This type of event also works when you have a diverse group, who collectively bring many perspectives and much varied knowledge to the discussion. I thought they might struggle and need a little gentle prompting. Not a bit of it.

So watch this space for more once we have digested, segmented and condensed, literally, metres of great stuff into a manifesto for #responsiblerenewables. So keep watching this space for further progress on the creation of a manifesto.


No More NIMBY’s

NIMBY placard

Well, what a fascinating few weeks. Has Cuadrilla and the shale gas explorers become the new focus of Daily Mail vitriol? Have the sharp eyes and quill pens of fleet street’s finest now altered their gaze from beastly wind farms to dirty frackers (sorry couldn’t resist it)? And more importantly will this help us to develop our low carbon economy and secure a low cost energy supply for the medium term?

It is interesting that two such opposite technologies will now potentially have to adopt similar tactics. Communities must be won over in order to be able to provide the infrastructure we need for a secure energy future. Will this simply be a seduction of the vocal minority opposition; a persuasion of the NIMBYs that their local selfishness will not serve the greater good. Or would it be better to focus on the silent majority and support the community with conspicuous investment to garner support behind the particular development being suggested. Alternatively just carry on regardless and hope for the best.

What is clear is that there is not a catch-all engagement approach. We have been discussing this with the fascinating Dr Chris Jones of Sheffield University’s Psychology Department as part of our #responsiblerenewables campaign. Chris and his researchers have found that often objections to developments by local communities are not a rejection of the technology but of the process. Planning appears to operate with little connection to the community as demonstrated by the recent exposure of Cuadrilla’s Lord Browne’s connection to government. Dr. Jones’s advice is to engage earlier, better and deeper – or not at all. Developers must try to understand  the requirements and sensibilities of the communities and not assume it is filled with rabid NIMBYs.

In fact Chris contends that the term NIMBY is simplistic and this attitude does not really exist. Individuals are probably working to deeper subconscious stimuli that are being expressed in many ways both for and against developments. The difficulty is that however good the engagement of a community  is, it is very difficult to predict the outcome. Attitudes and reactions change with circumstances. Policies, strategies and decisions are complex and certainly neither binary nor linear.

We have found with our engagement work in the extractive sector that if companies open communications channels and listen to communities, then the results can be very positive. This now seems to be supported by a growing weight of evidence from psychology and neuroscience. We will be discussing this in more detail with Chris and fellow Oomphers at our next Oomph Seminar . It should prove a fascinating discussion.

Maybe we should all adapt some advice from the Prime Minister’s book – instead of hugging a hoodie we should look to hug a NIMBY, NIMBYs want love too.

Mandatory GHG Reporting, Burden or Benefit?


The question at our latest Oomph Seminar was are you ready for mandatory reporting? I think that the overriding answer from our very well informed audience was… yes and no…

From 1 October 2013 the Companies Act 2006 (Strategic Report and Directors’ Report) Regulations 2013 will require all UK quoted companies to report on their greenhouse gas emissions as part of their annual Directors’ Report. – so says the latest Government guidance.

This is landmark legislation and most commentators have applauded the Government for its introduction. The requirement will be upon us very fast (ie the 2014 reporting period, of 2013 data) and will be far reaching. Those organisations that have environmental reporting structures in place will be in good positions. It is shocking however that it is estimated that 30% of those quoted companies who are required to report in this area have made no provision so far. They may struggle.

The information is required to be included in the Directors’ Report by a company and so should compel even the most sceptical director to start to consider the area and try to understand the impact on the organisation. The language of environmental and sustainability reporting should then start to enter the discussion around the boardroom table. The conclusion in the seminar was in the main that this should be positive. It was pointed out that it was important to speak in a language that would be understood.

It was very interesting to hear from Alliance Boots that it has been using its established financial reporting process to capture and publish environmental data for some time. This has some resourcing issues around year end and so very practically Boots have moved the environmental reporting cycle to lag 3 months behind the financial one.

The link into the financial reporting process highlights another opportunity for organisations and in particular the environmental professionals within them. As custodians of this data, sustainability and environment managers must engage outside their niche. It should bring them into the spotlight and provide access to major decision makers across the business. This may be an uncomfortable place for many, but should be grasped and exploited. The natural owner of this reporting mechanism and information should be the Financial Director, who normally sits on the right hand of the CEO.

This new legislation presents a great opportunity to press the case for the adoption of more sustainable policies and procedures and to make the business case arguments. Potentially, therefore, mandatory reporting will have significant impact, but only if this is recognised, embraced and communicated persuasively. Data can tell some of the story but only if it is successfully translated into the language of the board.

The negative outcome of this process could be where the reporting is only viewed for reportings sake and not with a broader commercial or financial context; then almost certainly  it will be considered a burden to the business.

Finally as this is such a new area for legislation the impact of auditor interpretation will be interesting and could be very influential. How closely will auditors work with the businesses and how much will they interrogate the data to ensure its validity? This will only be revealed after the first reporting round.

One area that was pointed out as lacking in the legislation is the comparability of the data (this is not mandatory but voluntary). This is not surprising given some of the complexities, but will limit the ability of investors and shareholders to examine the relative performances of companies and so may not serve to inform good decision making.

Ultimately the sanctions of inaccurate or unreliable GHG reporting are minimal but this does not mean that the legislation will not achieve some of its aims? The majority of directors undertake their responsibilities very professionally and if carbon reporting can sit alongside their lexicon of balance sheets and EBITDA figures, then organisations will start to recognise the necessity and opportunity of incorporating sustainability into commercial strategies.

In this Oomph Seminar we were very lucky to have two very knowledgeable speakers sharing their extensive knowledge of the subject. Jae Mather from our hosts, HW Fisher & Company introduced the legislation and its commercial context and Lucy Candlin from Planet and Prosperity shared her deep knowledge, of some of the pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting, that she has encountered in carbon accounting and reporting around the world.

Many thanks to them both and to all who made it along. Jae’s slides are available below – worth looking at as there was some very persuasive information in them.

And if you haven’t starting planning how your company should organise its GHG reporting requirements then give us a shout, I’m sure we can help.

Oomph Mandatory Carbon Reporting – HW Fisher presentation




Collaboration, Nature or Nurture?

“Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration…” was the title from our latest Oomph Seminar. Apologies to Tony Blair for our rather clumsy adaptation of his education rallying cry.

Our 8th (yes 8th) Oomph Seminar investigated how collaboration between different parties can achieve mutually successful outcomes. In particular we wanted to look at how relationships between businesses and organisations in the third sector can be as productive as possible. To that end, we invited Simon Bentley, Director of Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT) to open the seminar with a presentation on some of the collaborations the trust has developed over the years.

LRWT has been involved with Anglian Water at Rutland Water for nearly 40 years to great effect; creating an important amenity for wildlife, community and visitors that has a national, if not global reputation. Simon explained that one of the keys to this was the point at which the trust is invited to be involved. This is normally right at the concept stage of any planning and in this way their expertise could be leveraged as fully as possible. An important lesson for successful collaboration, but one that takes confidence, trust and honesty between the collaborators.

As Simon was speaking it struck me that Rutland Water in particular is a great example of the interconnection of nature and human progress. If it is done sympathetically and considerately then the benefits are huge and long lasting – a lesson that many businesses have yet to learn as we move into a resource constrained world.

Many more examples of positive collaboration were shared and led into some searching questions, many of them focussed on  the relationship between the land, nature and the demands for new housing and how developers and housebuilders can deliver to homeowners and shareholders alike. The greening of development is a considerable challenge, particularly given the tighter and tighter margins and who should “pay” for green? Natural collaborations in this area are not particularly evident which leads me back to the title of this blog. Will collaborations naturally emerge from the evolving marketplace or do individuals and organisations have to learn how to develop effective collaborations?

A number of examples of good collaborations between as many as 16 different parties were aired and discussed. What was highlighted in particular was the need to talk (openly) between the disparate parties and that this often needs the drive of leadership particularly at the beginning of a collaboration. I was very impressed by the galvanising power of these multifaceted relationships but had to question whether many individuals or organisations have the capacity to develop these effectively.

One example of a powerful collective had at its heart a definition that the relationsip had to have:

- a joint vision

- a shared passion

- a long-term view

To really work, the people involved in bilateral or multilateral collaborations must be as adept at listening, as well as talking; be adaptable to the methods of achieving the collective goal and recognise that not all relationships will have immediate positive outcomes. But that there may be some unforeseen outcomes of the process that could have real value to some of the participants.

It is also important to recognise the impact of the personalities involved and that they can make or break any collaboration.

By the end of the discussion (which could have have continued all afternoon) we tried to conclude with some key lessons, or ideas, to take into collaborations:

  1. Utilise the power of social media and digital communication
  2. Talk and listen – share mutual benefits
  3. Recognise the difference between collaboration and competition: collaboration needs openness, while competition seeks advantage of one party.
  4. Identify a catalyst to get things started and then build momentum
  5. Define value not price/cost
  6. Ensure that the relationship’s vows are regularly renewed (these can evolve over time)
  7. Terminate ineffective collaborations, don’t flog dead horses
  8. Encourage and drive creativity through the relationship’s dynamic parties.
  9. Embrace the bi-products of the collaboration ie new relationships and ideas and celebrate them as much as the achievement of the main goal.

… go forth and collaborate. But remember it may not all come completely naturally and many of the skills need to be learned and worked on for the relationships to be productive and thrive. Collaboration needs a lot of nurture.

The Blessing of No Budget – Oomph Seminar, London 17th January 2013

Our successful series, Oomph Seminars, moved to London yesterday. The theme was “Sustainability on a Shoestring – is it possible?” We wanted to investigate whether the case for change and the establishment of more sustainable operations was best enabled through the value argument of delivering improving commercial returns or whether small incremental, no cost options can start to create a sustainability snowball.

We set our new oomphers two key questions

1. If you could spend your budget on only one thing in 2013 what would it be? – if you don’t have a budget, consider the most important thing you can invest your time on.

2. What has been your best zero cash cost action?

On a bitterly cold January day the turnout was fantastic and many thanks to KYOCERA for the use of their fabulous Technology Suite on Mortimer St, W1. This is a great facility and offered free of charge to anyone looking to promote the sustainability cause.

We roped in the inspirational Simon Graham from Commercial Group to set up the conversations to follow. Simon is an oompher of old and his company is one of the leaders in creating value from a sustainable business model. He took us through its story, dating back to 2006 when Simone (a founding director not a typo) was Al Gored at an event set up by James Murdoch. She came back with a completely new vision for the business and set about establishing it.

One of her first moves was the appointment of Simon as the Environmental Strategist and he has been at the forefront of its powerful Green Angels environmental champion’s programme and the setting of a series of very ambitious targets and aims for the business. His financial director is now smiling with the upward curve of all financial indicators and can see the real value and contribution the sustainability programmes have made to the bottom line. Initially this was made with little investment. However as the momentum built the budgets increased. Commercial’s latest move is an investment in Hydrogen vehicles which involves a substantial capital investment.

The astute timing of initiatives and actions was a very important insight to come from Simon’s presentation. Another was the careful management of “green teams”. Where “volunteers” are selected so that the make up of the team is as powerful as possible and its members are respected, action orientated, leaders in action not necessarily title and with strong opinions to match.

The break out sessions produced much debate but interestingly and quite surprisingly there were a limited number of concrete actions to come from the group that considered the singular budget investment. No mention of the role out of LED or PV to save money or generate income. The majority of the responses and discussion was around overarching approaches. It was recognised that sustainability is not seen as sexy and needed to be repositioned in many businesses. Language is often a major barrier as is the very different agendas of executives in UK and in the US.

One concrete  area of focus for budget was the establishment of more coordinated travel planning. Travel is a huge cost for many businesses and so can be a very futile ground to establish more sustainable practices and their visible commercial benefits. One very exciting but simple idea to drive such behaviours is the understanding of individual barriers to activities such as car sharing or cycling. These barriers can be removed with investment in things as simple as free car valets for car sharers, or free taxi hame if car sharing buddy is called away. The provision of showers, hairdriers and straighteners can make cycling a much more viable option. Small, simple, personal incentives communicated with a bit of wit can go a long way.

This led us to the recognition of a recurring theme that behaviour should be driven first and attitudes follow as opposed to the attempts to change opinions to drive behaviour. Whether this will go all the way to the board room was questioned and the vital requirement of leaders to demonstrate the behaviour change for it to be established. In organisations without clear sustainability strategies the majority of initiatives will be short lived and seen as a “nice to do”, reinforcing the marginal position of the sustainability professional. So however significant the budget the key is to engage the board, to set the example and demonstrate the change.

This picked up on an interesting finding from the no budget group that the lack of budget was almost liberating, not frustrating. It allows more freedom , less scrutiny and potentially encouraged more integration and collaboration. Potentially it should drive greater conversation and engagement. Sustainability can be seen as an enabler in the actions of other departments, to provide creativity and ideas and to be used to solve individual problems.

Local, national and international issues and events such as Earth Hour, Climate Week or community green initiatives can be used to stimulate action by mobilising established awareness with no cost. Is it therefore heretical to suggest that sustainability might be best served by the department or individuals not holding substantial budgets but using its knowledge, experience and expertise to aid others? In this way activities could become integrated not peripheral and sustainability viewed as a source of huge benefit not eccentric ideas.

If this counter intuitive approach is to be feasible it demands real openness from sustainability individuals; reaching out to contact, listen, inspire and act and drive the establishment of change right at the heart of organisations not from the sidelines.

Legal Compliance – A Trivial Pursuit

Oomph Seminar – Environmental Management Systems – The Dark Arts

In the week that Defra announced the timetable over the next four years for the removal and simplification of environmental regulation, the latest Oomph Seminar focussed on the evaluation of legal compliance. This long awaited reform seeks to reduce the administrative burden of compliance. The past twenty years has seen a steady and seemingly inexorable increase in the breadth and depth of regulation and government has now called a halt. For organisations with an environmental management system the challenge of how to demonstrate compliance with this baffling mountain of statutes, simplification and reduction must be welcome.

This theme emerged again at today’s Oomph Seminar at Highcross in Leicester. Many thanks to Nicola Duffy for the fabulous room and her insightful introduction to the theme, Environmental Management Systems – The Dark Arts. It was generally agreed that for many environmental professionals the focus of their EMS is on achieving a certificate. But once the certificate is shining on the General Manager’s wall what then? Is it more box ticking or can more be achieved? Is the organisation or business then fully legally compliant?

It is often the perception of senior management that achieving the certificate ensures legal compliance in environmental legislation. Company reports may even state this. Compliance is however a very dynamic and complex state which connects the application of detailed regulations with procedures and behaviours. A change in one of these and therefore a disconnection between these three elements may lead to becoming non-compliant. Is it actually unrealistic to describe, with any degree of confidence, whether an organisation is ever actually in full and 100% compliance? If not, then what is point of legal compliance?

Much store is given to having an accurate and up-to-date legal register, however without this being integrated as a part of overall risk assessment, we will lose sight of what is really important. As a consequence we could be ignoring the truly important for the sake of achieving the unachievable.

Surely the most important part of the job of an environmental manager is to provide the expert analysis of the law and as a result give assurances to senior management. It is almost tantamount to heresy for an environmentalist to admit to being in a non-compliant state. However the reality is that what they should be doing is to analyse the business risk and consequence and to target effort, especially in these times of limited resources.

If one accepts that legal compliance is a risk based exercise, then what can result is better targeting of both resources and business benefit. What tends to cause problems is getting buried in and obsessive about trivia. The challenge is how to decide what is trivial. The discussion around this concluded that the best way is through active and effective engagement across the organisation.

What tends to happen is the environmental expert is isolated and comes up with worthy but often impractical advice and guidance. This results in a lack of credibility and a huge uphill battle from then on. One image of environmental mangers that stuck was of often feeling like a dementor (soul-sucking creatures from Harry Potter). If we focus on the trivial we lose the argument and make enemies of those that we need to involve in the process.

If it is a risk process then it is likely that some legislation will be missed because it is considered trivial even though it might relevant. Will this cause a problem with the third-party auditor? It shouldn’t if it is presented in the context of the business. Surely the outcome must be that the environment is protected and the organisation can demonstrate continual improvement. Linking environmental aspects and impacts with legislation and internal control processes through an integrated risk register might be the method that we need to adopt.

So, perhaps the best way to deal with legal compliance is to throw away the legal register and start building systems that intrinsically recognise the legal framework which we need to operate within. Slavish attempts to prove that every part of every piece of legislation is being complied with is counter-productive. We should know what will really hurt the organisation, whether in terms of fines and penalities or in risk to reputation and apply the system accordingly.

Humanity and Hubris – Oomph Seminar on GRI and Sustainability Reporting

This morning saw our fifth Oomph Seminar run which we had titled “An introduction to GRI: how sustainability can add real value”. But in the week before, we came across The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog by Jo Confino entitled “Has Barclays brought corporate responsibility reporting into disrepute?” and decided to change tack slightly. Thus proving the benefit of late preparation for seminars.

The blog takes a very strong position on the effectiveness of reporting and in particular the process of verification, in light of recent disclosures of malpractice at Barclays.In the usual manner of an Oomph event, we explored many and various elements of this topic. Many participants shared their experiences in convincing their organisations to report or change how they report to achieve greater transparency.

The corporate world often exhibits hubris (defined as excessive pride or self-confidence) as a means of creating confidence to their stakeholders. This may be misguided and is most certainly common in corporate sustainability reporting. As Jo Confino pointed in his blog “Instead we are treated to the same issues that are trotted out in a robotic way in most sustainability reports…”

At the heart what is needed seems to be a new culture of transparency that will balance hubris and humility and crucially this honesty will be welcomed. Company leaders must recognise this shift in culture and will show a lot of bravery as it will be uncomfortable to them. Some are already showing this and we showed an example from McDonalds Canada that presented their promotion of food with surprising and refreshing honesty.

The participants had a real breadth of experience of reporting, from those that are GRI A, to those not yet reporting in any capacity. The important thing is to start and then to recognise that GRI A+ is still only part of the overall package of sustainability reporting. In this new culture of transparency and it is generally now recognised that if all that is presented is good news then it will lead to suspicion, nothing is ever perfect. So all CEO’s out there need to get over themselves and realise that talking about the odd failure and how things have improved is a crucial part of winning the trust of their audience.

The majority of people at the seminar were from subsidiaries of large corporations not headquartered in the UK. The sustainability report for these companies is likely therefore to have considerable significance being the only comprehensive document that local stakeholders will have access to. Reporting’s role seems to be undervalued and much greater emphasis should be placed on it. It was recognised that one-size-can’t-fit all, that one report can’t ever hope to reach and meet the needs of diverse interests of stakeholders.

Slavishly adhering to the requirements of GRI could perversely limit the effectiveness of the reporting process. By seeking to meet this standardised approach all corporate reporting seems to look and feel alike. The way GRI seems to have been used focusses on a small subset of stakeholders who want comparability. The stories expressed do not reflect the character and culture of the company. The impersonal nature of corporate communication so often creates an impression that alienates people out this subset of stakeholders. The fantastic opportunity for  sustainability reporting is to become the voice of humanity (a phrase used by one of the participants) rather than a cold instrument of rational and factual statement, possibly encouraged by GRI. What is needed is an expression of humility. These are complex and far reaching issues that can not and must not be dismissed with casual statements about commitments to company policy.

This creates a real dilemma. How can a company tell strong, compelling stories that people actually believe? And how can reporting be more accessible to those without high levels of technical knowledge? One approach, which will likely terrify most in the corporate world, is to let the stakeholders tell the stories in their own way. At the moment the closest we get to this is when NGOs, customer or local communities have their views presented as testimony, however this is very selective and typically invited by the company. Those that embrace the risk and reward of social media are likely to lead the way in this area.

This returns us to our overriding theme which was that messages need to reflect the audience. When we prepare for our Oomph Seminars we try to provide some simple and exciting ideas that people can take away and use. Over the past few days we have developed this simple four box model (what else would you expect), click on this link Reporting targeting matrix to reveal it. We think it helps to understand the different needs from different potential users – assisting those considering their organisation’s reporting process to adapt messages from the overall report for different audiences utilising a variety of media channels.

The scandal at Barclays has demonstrated the potential for vast differences between what we say we do and what we do do. It puts renewed onus on those driving the reporting process to really communicate with an integrity and honesty and not just bland and vacuous statements. The rigour of GRI can support such transparency and it will be rewarded with deepening trust – a commodity of increasingly rare value to our businesses and institutions.



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  • Testimonials

    It is fantastic to leave a seminar feeling inspired and full of practical ideas. Thursday’s oomph seminar did exactly that, Ben and Dan are naturals at putting an audience at ease which meant real participation from the group. As environmental professionals often form a one person team, it is fantastic to share a room with like minded individuals from local businesses who have faced and tackled similar challenges and can offer insight and advice. Eagerly anticipating the next installment of Oomph!

    Nicola Duffy, Environmental Co-ordinator at Highcross, Leicester

    Thank you both for inviting us to today’s Oomph seminar. From our point of view, we found the stimulus material and subsequent debate insightful from a sustainability perspective, but also in a wider context applicable to the successful deployment of general business initiatives.

    Participant at Oomph Seminar 30 June 2011

    Really enjoyed this morning. I have attended very few seminars over the past two years simple because they are all too similar, often the the same speakers and follow the same theme. Today was most importantly enjoyable, interesting and got the brain cells working. I like small groups with variety of people and backgrounds.

    Participant at first Oomph Seminar 30 June 2011