What difference do our differences make? Some thoughts on diversity in the sustainability profession

What difference do our differences make? Some thoughts on diversity in the sustainability profession

She is Still Sustainable was more workshop than a conference, but we did have two speaker panel sessions.  Like other She is Sustainable events that came before ours, this included a presentation on some of the facts and figures showing the systemic disadvantages women experience in the workplace. 

What has the snow revealed?

What has the snow revealed?

The Beast from the East has blanketed much of the UK with its beautiful sparkles, covering up roads, railways lines and in some cases front doors. 

But the snow has also revealed things that aren’t usually seen: particulate pollution, uninsulated roofs, space which could be reclaimed from traffic for pedestrians and cyclists, and the impoverished nature of our soil.

Personal resilience - three ways to build yours

Personal resilience - three ways to build yours

One of the things that came up again and again when I was talking to people about the new edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development, was supporting ourselves as sustainability professionals and as change-makers.  There are three key pillars which support us: perspective, association, and giving ourselves a break.

Facilitating and convening when you're not neutral

facilitating slides.png

Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. They recognise this, and they seek out collaborators who, like them, want to make more change than one organisation can do working alone.

They understand the power of collaboration so well, that they put resources and staff time into facilitating and convening it.

And they find themselves in a challenging situation - playing the role of convening and facilitating, whilst also being a collaborator, with expertise and an opinion on what a good outcome would look like and how to get to it.

Why is it a problem?

When you have expertise and a point of view on the topic being discussed, and you're also the convenor or facilitator, it causes three kinds of problems:

  • You are insufficiently neutral (or are thought to be) when you are playing the 'honest broker' role, helping the rest of the group discover their consensus.  The decisions made unravel, because they are not deeply owned by the group.
  • Your point of view and your expertise are lost to the group, unless someone else can contribute them on your (or your organisation's) behalf.
  • The people you have convened don't see themselves as collaborators, rolling their sleeves up to get on with real work after the conversation. They see themselves as consultees, telling you what your should do after the conversation.

These problems are not insurmountable, but they are real. Understanding that they are an inherent feature of being a non-neutral facilitator/convenor helps you to anticipate them, spot them when they occur and mitigate.

Thinking it through as a team

I work with a lot of organisations who are in this position, and recently I ran a half-day masterclass for one of them. The masterclass began with me setting out the problem, and then the group shared their actual experiences and discussed what they wanted to do about it.

Here are the slides, suitably anonymised.

Once you understand the typical challenges, you can decide which situations need that additional neutrality, which really need you to be 'in' the conversation, and come up with ways of making sure that happens.  There are some ideas here.

I'd love to help other organisations think through these dilemmas and make their own choices about them.

Looking back, looking forward

It's the last working day of 2017 for me, and of course I've been looking back and looking forward.

It's a lovely thing to do. Identifying the highlights of the past year, and dreaming just that little bit more ambitiously about the year to come.

Still conversations

In 2017, I experimented with still conversations: a peer-learning, coaching-inspired way of giving sustainability leaders the space to reflect and think aloud, so that they can go back to their work refreshed and inspired to make more change for the rest of us.  In 2018, these will run again and they will be a key part of the work I do to support change-makers.  People who need to build their own (or their organisation's) resilience, and who want to make more change, are welcome.

Change Management for Sustainable Development

Change Management for Sustainable Development was published by IEMA.  In writing it I got to interview some of the best in the business - in-house leaders who want to build a better world and know how to transform an organisation from the inside-out. In 2018, I'll be sharing more of these insights through blog posts, webinars and with clients.

CPD for me

I was honoured to be made a Fellow of IEMA in the summer.  In October I joined hundreds of other facilitators at the IAF's Europe, Middle East and North Africa regional conference in Paris. What a wonderful event! I learnt so much and was able to share some of my own expertise with facilitators from all over the world. My CPD next year will be a bit 'out there' - I'm taking part in Belina Raffy's Sustainable Stand-Up communications course.  And yes, there will be a show in late May. Come and laugh with / at me!

She is Sustainable

One other highlight from 2017 was She is Sustainable - a warm and supportive event organised by women working in sustainability, where older women shared their life stories and hard-won wisdom with younger women just starting out on that journey. I was so inspired by facilitating the open space sessions. In 2018, working with some other wonderful sustainability women, I'll be putting on She is Still Sustainable. This sister-event will be for women who have been around the block a few times, working in sustainability and related fields, who are ready to take stock and plan their next adventure.

Change through clients

Throughout the year I worked with clients who are campaigning, innovating, convening and collaborating for sustainability. The kinds of things I helped with included organisational development and strategising, capacity building around facilitation and engagement, designing and facilitating workshops, coaching... I am looking forward to stretching and being stretched by ambitious, imaginative clients in 2018, and helping them make change!



Change management for sustainable development - 'a coach in your pocket'

CMSD cover 2017.jpg

Are you an environment or sustainability specialist, working to help your organisation step up to its role in bringing about a sustainable future?  Want to make more of an impact? I want you to as well! Which is why I was so pleased when IEMA invited me to write a second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development.

And when one of our peer readers said "it's like having a coach in your pocket", I was really happy, because that's exactly what I wanted it to be.

It's published today!

Huge thanks to all the wise, insightful and generous practitioners who shared their experiences with me.

There is a free download for IEMA members, and non-members can order an e-copy (£10) or a hard copy (£25 /£15 for members). https://www.iema.net/cmsd

Surfing a wave of change - #OurBluePlanet

Green Sea Turtle,  NOAA

Green Sea Turtle, NOAA

The BBC's brilliant Blue Planet 2 has certainly sparked a great conversation about how delicate and beautiful our planet is, as well as showing us how fragile the ocean ecosystem - on which life depends - is.

Today, the BBC has launched #OurBluePlanet - aiming to get 1bn people talking about oceans and how to protect them. This blog post is a contribution to #OurBluePlanet, and it's about how you - as an environment or sustainability professional, if that's what you are - can surf this wave of change.

Surfing a wave of change

In Change Management for Sustainable Development - out soon from IEMA - I write about some different approaches to making change in organisations. One approach is to 'surf a wave of change'. Notice what else is attracting attention and getting things moving. Use it to advance the sustainability conversation.  Get traction for your green action by harnessing the energy that's already on the move.  The public's concern and new appreciation of the blue planet is just such a moment.

Your existing initiatives

At the very least, you can let colleagues know how your existing environment and sustainability initiatives help protect oceans and allow them to recover. Whether it's reducing carbon emissions, cutting effluent, moving towards a circular economy or sustainable fishing (and I'm sure you can think of other connections), so much of what you already do is connected to #OurBluePlanet.

If you are working on the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals), then you will know that SDG 14 focuses on Life below Water.

Greater change

While colleagues are interested and motivated, help your organisation respond by showing them the changes they make - strategically and operationally - to improve their ocean impact further. You are the one with the expertise, so use it to identify genuinely impactful initiatives.

What difference does the business model make?

Photo: Lego city,  Sonny Abesamis

Photo: Lego city, Sonny Abesamis

There's a lot of talk about the need for new business models, for sustainable development. What might make one business inherently more sustainable than another?  What kind of businesses are embracing their special role in bringing about a sustainable society?  Or helping us transition?

We in the sustainability movement sometimes struggle to understand the concept of a business model at all.  What is a business model?  How do you distinguish between one model and another?

What I've learnt and who I've learnt it from

This post is a bit of an exploration of what I think I understand about business models, gleaned from listening to people like Stephanie Draper and David Bent from Forum for the Future as well as helping the Travel Foundation and the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship straddle the fields of start-up businesses and sustainability.  I'm also drawing on what I've learnt from working with the inestimable Julie Brown and Growing Communities on their grass-roots bottom-up start-up programme, ably assisted by the entrepreneurial advisors at UnLtd.

Follow the money

It seems to me that there are two different ways of thinking about business models.  One is about the governance and questions around who benefits from the business. The other is considering who is paying whom to add what value at each stage.  Those both sound like pretty tricksy concepts which you might well see on bullsh*t bingo, so I'll expand on them a bit here.

Who invests, who owns, who benefits?

On one side, we have private companies where investors put up the money and expect to get a return:  which might be that their capital grows (I invest £500 in a business and when I sell my share of the business I get £1000 for it) or that they get a dividend (I invest £500 in a business and every year I get a share of the profits, say £75 a year).

The growth in the capital or the income depends on how well the business does.

Depending on how risky the business seems to be, I might only invest my £500 if it means that I own half the business.  This is the kind of negotiations you see on Dragons' Den, where the potential investors strike deals with the candidate businessmen and women, demanding a bigger slice of ownership than is initially on offer.

Another way of raising capital for private business is through loans, which get paid back at an agreed interest rate, which is negotiated with an eye on the risk of the business not being able to pay the loan back (defaulting). The loan may be secured with a mortgage, in effect making the investor a potential owner if there is a problem paying back the loan.

There are also businesses with a sort of hybrid relationship with their investors and shareholders: like community-owned renewable energy businesses which raise capital by issuing shares, but the rate of return is capped.  See for example those linked to Energy4All (this is not financial advice).  These companies are run for profit, but the return to shareholders is limited by the rules governing the company, and the remaining surplus is reinvested or donated.

And then there are completely not-for-profit businesses like Growing Communities, which funds its activities largely through trading (selling stuff).  Growing Communities is owned by its members (box scheme customers), and any surplus is reinvested in the business.  In the case of Growing Communities, reserves built up over a number of years have been used to part-fund activities like its start-up programme, which supports other communities to set up their own financially self-sufficient sustainable food schemes.  The original capital to set up Growing Communities came in two forms: sweat equity (free labour and in-kind contributions from the entrepreneurs who set it up) and advance payments from customers (members) who paid for vegetables before they were sown!  I know, I was one of those veg buyers.

Not forgetting co-operatives and other employee-owned organisations, where ownership is shared among the people who work in them (or have some other relationship to the organisation, like being a customer or a 'member'), either equally or in ways which mean that one person can own a bigger slice of the organisation than someone else.

You can see immediately that different kinds of people are going to be interested in being investors in, and owners of, these kinds of businesses.

And you'd expect to see the 'rules' or assumptions about what returns investors could get, to be written down quite clearly - in share offer documents, articles of association and so on.

Interestingly, one of the special aspects of being a certified B-Corp, is that while businesses can continue to be 'for profit', their governing documents need to incorporate sustainability, so that they are also 'for benefit'.  This is explained in detail here. The point is that the directors of a B-Corp will have a mandate to consider 'who benefits' in a wider way than implied by the questions 'who owns' and 'who invests'.

Who is paying whom, to do what?

The other way that people use the term 'business model', is understood when you follow the money: who gives money to whom, in exchange for what?

The what is 'added value'.

So in a really simple retail situation, I pay a stall-holder at the farmers market to receive some delicious vegetables.  Here's a service example: someone pays me to design and facilitate a workshop. 

A slightly more complicated example: I pay a monthly standing order to Freedom from Torture, who in turn provide medical and therapeutic services to victims of torture. There's no real exchange here (I get a newsletter, but I often can't bear to read it...).  The organisation has told me enough about its effectiveness in a field I care about, that I am in effect paying it to do something that I want to see done, but cannot do myself.  This particular charity also gets money from grant-making bodies, which is likely to be tied to the provision of specific services or achievement of specific outcomes, which don't directly benefit the bodies which are making the grants.  So this is a 'benefit at a distance' from the perspective of the people providing the money.

Once you start to look at organisations this way, all sorts of questions jump out:

  • How can Twitter and Facebook, and similar businesses, provide free services to individual users? Because advertising and data mining.
  • How do Uber and Airbnb make money? Taking a cut from the people who provide the actual driving or hosting.  So why do those people pay money to Uber / Airbnb? Because they receive a service: visibility to customers who want a convenient way of locating and paying for their services.
  • Who would be paying who to do what, in a circular economy? It will depend on the interplay of a few factors: the comparative costs of using 'waste' as a raw material versus using 'new' raw materials; the comparative costs of 'disposing' of the waste, as opposed to processing it and transporting it to the people who want to use it as a raw material; the particular regime of regulation and taxation surrounding these things.  You might see the organisation which is generating the waste, paying for it to be taken away and dealt with.  You might see the organisation which is making the new product, paying the recycling organisation to provide it with raw materials.
  • What about 'payment for ecosystem services'?  This is the idea that, for example, a farmer might be paid (by whom?) to enable more water to be stored on their land during very wet periods, to help reduce down-stream flooding.  The payment might represent income lost by, for example, not being able to harvest crops from a flood plain. Or it might represent costs incurred by planting trees on land which otherwise wouldn't absorb so much water.

My reflection is that it's not enough to understand how physical resources might flow through a system, or who/what might benefit from a different way of doing things: when faced with a novel business idea, it's important to understand who might pay whom to do what.

Is one business model better than another?

There is a lovely dissection of business models for social good, by David Floyd here (warning: contains llamas). 

At a very exciting but top secret (OK, Chatham House rules) workshop on the future of sustainable business that I ran recently (October 2017), the participants from a range of backgrounds, including multi-national consumer goods businesses, got quite close to recommending alternative ownership and governance structures as being fundamental to business being truly 'for good' - because of the 'patient capital' needed to underpin them, and the need for leaders to be able to consider wider benefits than the financial benefits to owners.



In-house facilitation networks - what makes them work?

Post-its by  Erwin Brevis

Post-its by Erwin Brevis

Inside some organisations, there are networks of facilitators who design and run better meetings.  Perhaps you are in such a network, or have worked with people who are. Perhaps you've designed and run training for people who go on to be part of such a network.  These are, for the most part, people who facilitate either as a part of their job (and are given management support and time within their job to do this) or on top of their day job (having to carve out time informally, and doing it because they love it). They are not generally full-time facilitators.

I was asked to share some insights about facilitation networks, for SALAR, the Swedish Association of Local Government and Regions. This was done as part of some work that Edward Andersson is helping them with. A link to my presentation is at the bottom of this post.

Facilitation as an essential skill for participative approaches to decision-making

SALAR's interest came from their desire to revitalise dialogue between citizens and local government, in order that decisions taken at a local and regional level are much better informed by people's experiences, insight and preferences.  When bringing together a group of citizens to discuss contentious questions like whether and how best to welcome refugees, or what to do about school provision or local transport services, you need a skillful facilitator who can both design a good process and facilitate it 'in the room'. 

And the in-house facilitator network I know best - at the Environment Agency* - arose because of exactly this impulse: the need to have much better conversations with stakeholders (both professional stakeholders and communities) about important questions like pollution control, flood risk management and protecting water quality. (The Environment Agency also has a framework contract for Stakeholder Engagement, Advice and Facilitation Services, known as SEAFS, which has professional independent facilitators on it.)

Facilitation for internal conversations

There are also in-house facilitator networks which focus on internal conversations, rather than inside-outside conversations.  They help out with specific initiatives or projects - like whole-staff conversations in the run-up to the development of strategic plans - or can be called on for smaller conversations, like project planning or to sort out a problem.  Some organisations choose to take a very focused approach to their facilitation, by training facilitators in a specific methodology like agile or design thinking.  Others will equip their facilitators with a wider range of tools. 

Inter-organisational networks

There was a period in the UK when the stars aligned, and there was enough political focus on the role of citizen participation in local decision making that all sorts of public bodies - police, emergency services, health, education, local government and so on - needed to build their capacity to facilitate conversations with stakeholders and the public.  A solution which emerged - developed and championed by InterAct Networks - was to train facilitators from a number of different organisations which all covered the same geographical area.  So someone from a county council, a health authority and a community group might work together - with no money changing hands - to facilitate a workshop on behalf of an education authority.  And when the county council needed external facilitators, they could call on others in the network to help out.  This was one (cash-cheap) way to address the need for independent, neutral facilitation, where the facilitator does not have a stake in the outcome of the conversation.

At its height in 2004, there were between 15 and 20 such inter-organisational networks swapping facilitation resources and playing that neutral facilitator role for each other. Often, the in-house facilitators would would alongside professional independent facilitators who would lead on process design while the network members played support roles, for example facilitating table groups in larger workshops.

When I went looking for these kinds of networks again in 2017, I couldn't find any of the original networks still operating.  (I did find a different inter-organisation facilitator network, trained by Dawn Williams of Sage Gateshead, informally swapping facilitation services between museums in the North East of England.)

More in-house networks

After my work for SALAR was completed, I found out about some other in-house networks.  This was at a fascinating panel discussion as part of the (IAF) International Association of Facilitators conference in Paris, in October 2017.  We heard from four organisations about their internal networks: DHL Express Russia, Airbus, Decathlon and ENGIE Global Energy Management.  DHL Express Russia has trained 200 in-house facilitators!

Peer-learning networks

As well as networks where the purpose is to build an organisation's capacity to design and run better meetings, there are networks which are essentially there to facilitate peer learning between people who want to improve their facilitation skills.  There are loads of these, and they fall into two categories: alumni of a particular training course, e.g. Art of Hosting or TOP; and 'all-comers' peer learning, like the learning meet-ups organised by the IAF in the UK.  These are much more likely to include 'all comers' than to be confined to a single organisation.

What makes them work?

There are six key lessons that I took from talking to people who run successful networks and also to those with insights into networks that haven't continued:

  • Management support for network members - people need support from their managers to do the training, and then use their new skills for the benefit of colleagues and the wider organisation.
  • Coordination doesn't happen by magic. Networks are never 'self-sustaining'. Coordination, leadership, administration takes real people real time. It can be 'hidden' within someone's day job, or done on top of the day job, but it still needs doing.
  • The network must have a clear purpose (peer learning; advocating for the use of facilitative approaches; swapping of facilitator resources), and that purpose must meet a real organisational need (otherwise management support will not happen).
  • For peer learning networks, people need to think about four things: whether there is an 'entry level' of minimum knowledge, skill or training; how to support members in actively using their skills; encouraging reflective practice and peer or 'client' feedback; and building in face-to-face refreshers where people share skills, learn new ones, and problem solve for each other.
  • For 'swapping' networks, whether intra- or inter-organisational, even stronger organisational support is needed. There need to be guidelines for quality control, a protocol for receiving appropriate requests for facilitation support, and time for coordination.

What do you need to think about?

When setting up a facilitator network, the initiators need to think about:

  • its purpose - is it about facilitation skills which may be used in any situation, or about promoting public engagement or participative decision-making? is it primarily there to enable continued learning and skills development, or to provide (semi) independent facilitation for each other's teams (swapping facilitator resource)?
  • its boundaries - do all the members need to be from the same organisation? or to have gone through the same training?  Is there a minimum level of skill or training that they need, to be able to offer themselves to facilitate for others in the name of the network?   If there is 'swapping' of facilitators, there are some additional questions: how will 'clients' know about the resource, and how to use it well? How will requests for facilitation be filtered and allocated?  How will facilitators get feedback?  Does it matter if some members never make themselves available to facilitate in this way?
  • the organisational context - consider and explore things like: senior level sponsorship; the learning and development or professional development aspects, and how to get support from this team; making it part of people's 'day job'; if it's about promoting and enabling public and stakeholder engagement, consider how the organisation can integrate public engagement into the decision-making or policy-making cycle; whether or not the organisation has access to external professional facilitation support, in addition to its in-house network, and how this may dovetail with the network.
  • its coordination and management - how will the network get the resources to do the coordination and management; how will the coordinator(s) / manager(s) have a mandate from the network members, or from the organisation; who 'owns' the network, and can make decisions about its future?

Find out more

My presentation to SALAR is available here.  It's a powerpoint slide show, .ppsx.  This page should help if you are having trouble viewing it. The presentation is in three parts, and the participants had a chance to discuss the questions between each section. (For process geeks: we then had Q&A via skype, and doing it this way enabled me to stick to my no flying experiment.)

Get support

If you'd like to talk about setting up or revitalising an in-house facilitation network, do get in touch.

*Along with colleagues from InterAct Networks and 3KQ, I have trained in-house facilitators at the Environment Agency, and worked with them to facilitate workshops involving stakeholders and the public.

IEMA's Leading the Way Conference

iema leading the way conference.png

Are you coming to EMEX next Thursday 23rd? Or to IEMA's Leading the Way conference, which is running alongside it?  

I'll be hanging round the IEMA stand in the morning, and then giving you all some sneak peeks at the shiny new improved and fully updated second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development. I'll be joined by the wonderful Jane Ashton (TUI Group) and Vicky Murray (Pukka Herbs), with Nick Blyth from IEMA to help us out and some surprise guests.

Stop by and say hello!

Thanks for coming. Thanks for the work you choose to do.

It was great to see so many sustainability change makers at this event, and if you came along you'll know what I mean about saying 'thank you' to each other.

We were also joined by Tim Balcon of IEMA, Tony Rooke of CDP, and Alan Knight of ArcelorMittal. 

These are the slides that I used to introduce the forthcoming second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development. As they describe, the book is interactive, built from stories and practical advice, with exercises with allow the reader to reflect and note down their own insights and answers. I really hope it's useful to you.

(Updated 29th November 2017, to add additional speakers and link to slides.)

Keep it sheepy!

Facilitators need to stay out of the content- which belongs to the group - and intervene only to improve process.  (There's more on this here: the neutral facilitator.) But sometimes we get tempted to smuggle in our own views when we question or reflect back to the group. 

"Have you thought about [my great idea]?"
"It sounds as if you're saying [what I think]. Have I got that right?"

Training a cohort of facilitators yesterday with my great friend Rhuari Bennett from 3KQ, we called this the wolf in sheep's clothing.

Keep it sheepy!

wolf in sheep's clothing.jpg

Fellowship - thanks IEMA!

I’m honoured and proud to have been invited to become a Fellow of the IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment). 

Supporting and challenging my colleagues in the sustainability profession has been a huge part of my career.  I completely love helping them (you) to learn about how to make more change, how to stay resilient, how to find their path and bring their best – their whole selves - to this demanding and essential work. 

IEMA has been a big part of that: publishing my first book and providing a platform for me to share what I’ve learnt about organisations and people through regular features in The Environmentalist magazine, as well as training workshops and conference sessions.  It’s great to have my work recognised in this way, and to feel that this profession values the insights I’ve been able to bring.

I’m now even more fired up as I think about this autumn’s work: completing the second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development, and running the second season of Still conversations for sustainability leaders.

So thanks to everyone in IEMA for this recognition.  I look forward to continuing to work with you to transform the world to sustainability!

Peace, justice, partnerships and a strategic approach - 7/7 on business and the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the  UN's media centre .

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the UN's media centre.

Now that the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) have had a chance to bed down, how are companies responding to them?  And what about the rather nebulous enabling goals 16 and 17 on peace, justice, strong institutions and partnership: how can businesses translate these into action? 

The seventh and final piece in my series on the SDGs, written for The Environmentalist magazine, is out now.  See it on their website here, or read the pdf version.

What makes a great partnership?

This series has featured many collaborations and partnerships.  Some, like the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development network, are for business and other players across the sustainability spectrum.  Others focus on specific issues or sectors, like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the Corporate Leaders Group (which is about climate change) and the C40 network of cities.

This kind of joint working can be disappointing, if clear shared goals and skilful convening are lacking. 

It’s also important to understand that there is a spectrum of collaborative working, from sharing information, coordination and cooperation through one-off collaborative projects and mainstream work delivered jointly right up to collaboration being the new business-as-usual.  Potential collaborators need to listen to each other’s assumptions about how they expect to work together, as well as what they want to achieve.

This spectrum, and other useful frameworks and tips, are explored in my book “Working Collaboratively: a practical guide to achieving more”. 

Strategic responses to the goals as a whole

In exploring what businesses are doing to respond the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole, I have found different approaches being used.

Some, like Acciona the Spanish renewables and infrastructure company, are using them to focus their corporate volunteering.

Cemex, BT and Samsung are among companies which are highlighting links to specific goals in their sustainability reporting.  GRI has mapped the SDGs against its reporting frameworks.

Many are using the SDGs to augment their materiality analysis.  Global consultancy firm PwC has developed a sophisticated and detailed tool which helps clients take their first steps in engaging with the goals.  Louise Scott who helped develop the Navigator tool, said

“Our detailed country-by-country research has helped companies spot things they didn’t realise were important, and catalysed conversations, grounded in geography, about where they can have the most impact.”

Novozymes is using the SDGs as part of filtering and prioritising in its innovation pipeline.  The company has gone further, linking its Executive Leadership Team’s bonus scheme to annual operational targets, derived in part from the SDGs.

Make some noise

DNV GL, the Norwegian-based multi-service assurance, standards and advisory business, is among those business services suppliers who are making some noise about the SDGs.  Bjørn Haugland is their Chief Sustainability Officer, and through his substantial twitter following and DNV’s publications he is spreading the word to businesses and helping shape the business response.

Influencing government action

Business has a powerful voice and can choose to use it to support, or undermine, robust government action in favour of sustainable development.  This is particularly important when it comes to policy coherence, which is targeted in Goal 17.

BT is part of the We Mean Business coalition – thousands of influential businesses and business groups working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Over 120 coalition member companies have signed up to a commitment to responsible corporate engagement on climate change, promising to audit their activity, ensuring consistency and disclosing positions, actions and outcomes.

Across the suite of SDGs, Steve Kenzie Executive Director of the UN Global Compact in the UK, thinks companies should be “holding the Government’s feet to the fire”.

First, do no harm

Expert after expert told me that companies need to look hardest at where they may be – albeit inadvertently – undermining the SDGs.  Ruth Mhlanga, Oxfam’s Private Sector Policy Advisor, stressed

“It’s not just about opportunities, it’s also about responsible conduct and impact.  Don’t undermine one goal while tackling another.  Sustainability leaders will include those who support government efforts to govern for the common good and are willing to stand up to peers who undermine those collective efforts.” 

Collaborate to shift the system

Picking off the goals and targets which seem easiest could be a mistaken strategy, if the actions you take involve trading off progress on one front with undermining it on another.  In its research into the interconnections between the SDGs, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) highlights an area ripe with what it calls ‘wicked trade-offs’: environmental protection versus reducing food prices.  IIASA found that the most effective win-win would be to reduce the proportion of meat in Western diets.

Oxfam’s Mhlanga also advocates collaborative, system-level action. 

“On issues like freedom of association, single companies can’t fix the problem alone.  Oxfam’s work on labour rights in Vietnam, for example, illustrated that unilateral action is insufficient because the issues are systemic across an industry.  But where companies, governments and civil society work together, making issues like suppliers paying a living wage precompetitive, then no one company is disadvantaged by competitors undercutting.”  

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s report "Better Business, Better World" was clear on the need for system-level change:

“ ‘Business as usual’ will not achieve this market transformation. Nor will disruptive innovation by a few sustainable pioneers be enough to drive the shift: the whole sector has to move. Forward-looking business leaders are working with sector peers and stakeholders to map their collective route to a sustainable competitive playing field.”

Stephanie Draper is Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive.  Looking at progress since the SDGs were announced, Draper said

“Successfully delivering the SDGs requires a really strong systems approach.  That means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals, and delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.”

Which brings us back to Goals 16 and 17, with their call for inclusion, participation and collaboration.

‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

We need to go far. And we need to go quickly. So we’d better figure out how we’re going to do both.

Seven and out

You can read the series on The Environmentalist's website (IEMA login, subscription or free trial) or on my blog.

Who will catch me when I fall?

In the last couple of months I have taken up climbing again, after a break of about ten years.

It’s exciting.

The atmosphere at the indoor climbing centre I go to is upbeat, dynamic, friendly. 

When you hire out a carabiner and belay device - the small, beautifully engineered bits of metal which could save your life - the heavily pierced man in the hire shop will accept an RSPB membership card instead of a credit card as a deposit.   It’s that kind of place.

The background music is familiar and chosen to make you smile: ABBA, early 80s pop, 70s funk.

There are cheerfully written signs dotted around to point you to the café, yoga room and organic garden as well as to the more challenging ‘Stack’ and ‘Catacombs’ – fancifully named climbing walls.  Notices tell you that dogs are welcome, outside of peak times, but must not be tied to the safety equipment.  

There are people whose job it is to set routes that you climb on the walls.  They bolt on the brightly coloured artificial ‘holds’ in carefully planned patterns that allow for all levels: starting at an easy peasy grade 3 and carrying on right up to a surely impossible 8a.  They include tricky little challenges that you have to puzzle out and then implement – can I really get my foot that high and then push down on my hand to shift my weight on it?


But don’t be fooled by the jollity and bright colours.  12 metres up is still 12 metres up, even if the holds you are balanced on look like spotted turtles or alien jellies.

I climb tied to a rope which runs from my harness through a metal chain fixed at the top of the wall, then drops back down to the bits of metal secured via another harness to my climbing partner.  This is known as “top roping” and the act of holding and carefully taking in the rope - which the non-climber does - is called ‘belaying’.  Your belay is the person in charge of making sure the rope will save you. 

Don’t worry, there is more to this post than a lesson in climbing terminology!

If you climb this way, with a partner who is your belay, there’s something a bit funny – in fact, a bit alarming - that I’ve been taught to do at the beginning of a session.

When you have climbed up high enough that your feet are above your belay’s head – around two metres - you are supposed to fling yourself from the wall, without warning the belay.

Why would you do that?

You fling yourself from the wall to prove to you both, the climber and their partner, that they will hold you.

And the beautiful symmetry of the partnership means that as soon as you are back on solid ground and have wiped the sweat off your hands onto your trousers, you swap over and belay your partner as they make their way up the route they have chosen.

You can also climb without a partner.

It’s not just humans who might stop the rope slithering through, halting your rapid descent and leaving you swinging gently instead of writhing in agony on the floor. 

Where I climb, there are also automatic belay devices – simple mechanisms which take up the slack rope for you and, like a car safety belt, stop you if you fall. 

So the thing keeping you safe when you climb – actually, keeping you safe when you fall - might be a person or it might be something else.  You test it just the same.  You fling yourself off the wall from a relatively safe position.

I am afraid of heights and I am especially afraid of falling.  Both those fears magnify a third fear – I am afraid of not being in control.

Even a couple of metres off the ground, I really don’t want to fling myself from the wall.  My palms sweat.  My feet - already in a gripping shape due to the tight, tight climbing shoes - curl further inwards in a reflex reaction to the very thought of falling.  They are trying to grasp the footholds.  I psych myself up and chicken out.

We fling ourselves from the wall at a safe height, so that we can be sure of being safe when we need to make a truly risky move twelve metres up.

Why we fling ourselves off the wall

In my life, I have put off doing some things that I really want to do, for fear of how bad it will feel if I fail.  I am afraid of the shame, the crushing of my self-confidence, the public humiliation.

Your fears may be different. These are mine and I suppose they must be very precious to me because I still cling on to them after all this time.

What’s enabled me to go ahead and do the exciting things anyway – including just in this last year - is my previous experience of coming back from failure and from the excruciating shame I feel when I think I have failed.

This fear of failing is strong stuff.

Even the anticipation of that shame is really powerful too.  I don’t have to actually fail, to feel the shame.  I just have to imagine it happening.

In fact my palms are sweating now!

I have lately come to accept that I will feel bad while I contemplate and plan my daring actions.  I will fall off the wall.  I still feel bad – I haven’t learnt to avoid the fear, and I’m not sure I ever will.  It’s more that I now see it as the price I pay for doing something really cool.  

I know that feeling bad is temporary.  I have strategies for feeling better again.  I have a coach, a 'thinking partner', supportive groups, yoga. When I fall, and I do, I am caught. 

Taking a test fall

I’m on the climbing wall.  My belay partner is relaxed and ready.  They have done this before, they trust the ironmongery and the rope.  They trust me.  They want me to experience the exhilaration and triumph of beating the challenge from the fiendish route-setter, of getting to the top.  

And yet, and yet….

OK, this is it. If I wait any longer, my pretend fall won’t be enough of a surprise to test the team. 

I reach for a hold with my arm, pushing away from the wall with my legs at the same time.  I’m airborne and falling for a split second, before the rope goes taut and I’m jerked to a stop.

And breathe.

A few minutes later, I’m 12 metres up, stretching for a hold I can’t quite reach, but launching towards it anyway because - what’s the worst that could happen?

I’m no gecko, but knowing I’m roped up to someone, or something, that will catch me means I’ve definitely left the grade 3 routes behind.

In fact, if I’d never fallen and been caught, I never would have made it beyond beginner graded climbs.

In our lives, we can all be climbers. We can all take practice falls.  We can all belay for someone else.

Over to you

·      What are you afraid of, that holds you back from doing the cool stuff? 

·      Who or what catches you when you fall?  

·      Who do you catch, when they fall?

Knowing that we will be caught when we fall – by a person or by something else - enables us to do greater things. 

Let us climb, fall, be caught. Let us catch others. 

First outing...

This blog post is based on a presentation I made at this weekly gathering of like-minded fellow-travellers. There's a periscope recording here. 

Final places remaining - book now! Still conversations for sustainability leaders

Just a week to go until the second ‘still’ conversation.  Here’s what some people thought of the first one

“Thank you, Penny, it was a really powerful event you created a wonderful opportunity to reflect, listen, think and learn.  A really enriching experience and I would encourage any of my network in the sustainability community to consider signing up for one or more of your other forthcoming 'still' conversations.  A very worthwhile investment for both senior managers or practitioner level.” Thomas Enright, former Head of CSR, Affinity Water
“Thank you for your generosity, kindness and skill in making such a trusting space possible.”  Kath Dalmeny, CEO, Sustain
“Penny has created a unique space to reflect and share experiences. The carefully facilitated session provided new insights and a real sense of shared purpose with the other attendees.”  Matt Loose, Director, SustainAbility

There’s just one space left for next Wednesday, 12th April.  To find out more and book that place, click here.  The third 'still' conversation in this season is about getting sustainability into your organisation's strategy, and will be on 10th May.

To be kept informed about future ‘still’ conversations, drop me a line at still@penny-walker.co.uk

Work, growth, innovation and equality - Sustainable Development Goals and business

Stonewall and P&G's work to promote equality for LGBT staff in Spain, Rype Office's repurposed office furniture for Public Health Wales, Willmott Dixon Interiors working with the Amber Foundation to help vulnerable youngsters into work... These are just some of the businesses featured in part six of my seven part series for The Environmentalist on how business can help support the SDGs.

Credit: Nicki Priem.   Mafikizolo raised a flag to represent Goal 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Learn more...

You can read the article in its proper home, The Environmentalist magazine here, if you are an IEMA member or a subscriber.  Or if you sign up for a free trial. 

If that all sounds like too many clicks, there's a pdf of it here.




Where next for your sustainability strategy?

In these turbulent days, with right-wing populist movements rising and an unpredictable political context, you may be asking yourself how this should be reflected in your sustainability strategy. 

Perhaps there are critical business and organisational issues which need addressing, regardless of political uncertainty. 

Or are you looking at what the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) mean for the materiality analysis and the opportunities for collaboration that they bring.

If you are pondering these questions - or others - about your sustainability strategy and would like to think aloud with peers facing similar choices, do take a look at the second of this season of still conversations: where next with my sustainability strategy.

There are a few places still available, and you'll be in conversation with sustainability specialists from a major high street bank, an engineering company, a local authority and others.

Personal resilience hits a nerve

Image: David Caines

Image: David Caines

Every single place at this first still conversation has been snapped up - its theme of personal resilience has clearly touched a nerve.  Coming along are people like the CEO of a sustainability NGO, the head of sustainability at a local authority, the group sustainability manager at a nationally known construction company and a director from a pioneering sustainable business think tank. 

Why is it so popular? 

Trump and Brexit have a lot to do with it: turbulence, uncertainty, and the sudden swing from new orthodoxy to populist backlash mean that we need to recharge our batteries and gird our loins for new struggles.

The bad news in the data about things like temperature rise, ice melt and coral reefs lead to real grief and disempowerment.  Seeing how hard-hearted some of our fellow citizens are about people who are not ‘like them’ can make us question our assumptions.

It is right that we should examine how we are doing things.  And still conversations promise a chance to do that in a wholly supportive, trusting and nurturing way.

I’ll be running a waiting list, so do get in touch if you would like to join that.  And with this level of interest, it’s likely to run again and you can be among the first to know.

Other still conversations

In April our theme will be 'where next with my sustainability strategy', and in May we'll talk about 'getting sustainability into the organisation's strategy'.  If you're a sustainability leader and these themes appeal to you, please take a look.