Carbon offsets and our sinking ship

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“One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive one.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We are pretty inept, as humans, at looking at the big picture. We live in timelines where next month seems a long way away – let alone the next generation. This lack of big-picture thinking hinders our climate action, epitomised perfectly by the carbon offset market. 

The climate economy is slowly gaining strength, and with that comes a whole market to benefit the wants of the same short-term thinking that got us into this mess. Credible solutions exist out there, and I can agree that part of the solution is to suck some of the carbon out of the atmosphere, especially as the fossil fuel industry continues to grow

However, Carbon Removal projects in their early stages are inefficient (emitting more carbon than sequestered), expensive, and therefore currently inadequate. Carbon offsets are thus the go-to for businesses to achieve an affordable balance of carbon. Unfortunately, there are problems with balancing this way. 

My dad once put it great. Carbon offsets are like having a hole in your boat and emptying the water with buckets without considering fixing the hole. Potentially, the biggest danger of offsets is that they give the big carbon-emitting companies an excuse to relax, to let the ship continue leaking water. But the truth is right now, offsets are not even close to touching the sides of global emissions. (Imagine using a teaspoon to keep the water from filling up the boat) 

Reality check: we are sinking and panicking to act.  

The word “offset” in itself frustrates me. Much like the word “resilience” annoys me. Both terms are chucked around in business sustainability. “Offset” and “Resilience” imply a certain degree of acceptance of the bad stuff. It feels like the world has flipped from climate denial to climate doom – why did we skip the phase of radical action? 

We have accepted that carbon emissions are going to exist (the world is stuck how it is) and, thus, the climate apocalypse is inevitable. Instead, let’s act, let’s get the masking tape out and block that hole. We need to tackle the emissions at source and make it unacceptable to be complicit.

So… what exactly goes into creating a carbon offset?  I had a deep dive into the murky world of the offset market to find out just how easy it would be to offset some emissions.

As quoted by a potential offsetting partner, to offset a tonne of carbon would cost no less than £2.25 in India (outrageously cheap). This project was supplying a community with a Renewable Solar Farm – an awesome cause for sure. However, doesn’t it feel weird that a big oil company could mine a well of carbon sludge, export it and burn it only to claim that it has balanced those emissions by purchasing solar power 5000 miles away? 

We run into similar issues with REGOs and the ‘Renewable’ Energy tariffs you receive here. Company X will purchase 100 GigaWatts of wind power produced by a wind farm in France (supplying the local French grid). This 100 GigaWatts of renewable energy is then sold back to the consumer in the UK as renewable energy – regardless of the grid supply received in the UK (currently only 30% renewable supply at the time of writing – check here for the latest update).. This system of offsetting energy usage is fundamentally f**ked because it does not recognise the actual emissions burned on-site, and instead allows companies to turn a blind eye to its actual impact.

Therefore, an organisation can achieve Net Zero carbon emissions for its energy usage on a technicality of the energy companies offsetting their own emissions… seems like we are running in circles right?

All of this is in the pursuit of quick-win commercial sustainability. Net Zero should not be a balancing act awarded to those who can stay afloat in choppy conditions. 

What we really need is transparent, effective action that doesn’t simply treat the symptoms but helps to rectify the cause itself.

So what should companies do?

  1. 1. Put your money into decarbonising your emissions. Invest in initiatives that actively reduce your Scopes 1 & 2. If you have a budget of £1000 to offset, this could instead be (more wisely) invested into energy efficiency projects.
  1. 2. Pursue Scope 3 reporting and reductions that do not rely on transaction-based emissions reporting. Achieve insight into actionable reductions by working with your supply chain, identifying high-emitting operations and making calculated decisions on what is achievable.
  1. 3. Act fast. 2030 Net Zero goals will come around soon. Do not wait until tomorrow, next year, or five years to reduce your impact. Get to work now and fix the boat before we sink. 

What Should Governments Do?

At the risk of getting too political here, I believe that ‘business’ alone should not bare all of the responsibility to act (partly because we need intervention to enforce accountability).

A fundamental issue with the current status quo is that the ability to offset your emissions via renewable energy offsets is complicit to a system that says “normal” is still an energy system run on fossil fuels. This is not sustainable, therefore it should not be the norm. We need to ensure that there are more ways for this to be funded than relying on the murkiness of the carbon market. Governments, Banks and NGOs need to mobilise and invest in grants to support this. Personally I believe this should be the first thing on any new government’s manifesto to run the country, as our current grid struggles to keep pace with any new renewable energy supplies.


The Carbon Tax market is now worth $100 billion, with 23% of Global emissions now covered by a taxing system in economies like Austria and Indonesia. Could taxing carbon emissions be the only viable initiative of the next ‘green agenda’, that could also contribute to bridging some gaps in public spending? Incentives that reward carbon restriction are good and utilise market forces to ensure carbon emissions are addressed. Personally – I believe that it is only when creating emissions becomes economically unfeasible for any corporation, that we will see real action.

Sustainability: what’s love got to do with it?

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Today marks our annual celebration of romance and love. February 14th is a day of last minute restaurant reservations and heart shaped boxes containing single use plastic and the product of neo-colonial, modern-day child slavery.

Okay, I promise that was the last bit of pessimism you’ll read in this entry.

For today is a day for lovers, for compassion and deep feeling! But what does this have to do with sustainability?

To answer this question we have to explore two concepts: feeling and feeling. (Notice I’ve been very clever here and one of the ‘feelings’ is in italics.)

As people who have bodies and minds we interpret the world around us with our senses, which in turn provide our minds with information about what’s going on around us. We feel (no italics) by interacting with something physical, like hearing vibrations in the air or touching a loved one’s hand. This is feeling.

Feeling (in italics) on the other hand is something different entirely. We don’t feel with our senses. We feel with our minds and in particular a part of our mind that we rarely credit: our gut.

When we hear vibrations in the air, say, by hitting play on the video above, we use our senses to feel. But we feel the information that our senses deliver to us deep within our bodies. The goosebumps I feel at precisely 1 minute and 55 seconds aren’t a product of my body feeling, but my gut feeling Ella and Louie’s voices dancing together.

This feeling has been a mystery for humankind since we began thinking. The best way to think of it today is gut feeling: associations and signals that we can’t quite put our fingers on but fill us up with intense compassion, meaning and a sense of rightness or wrongness.

Louis Armstrong once said: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

Here I think he’s talking about feeling jazz rather than just hearing it and the same is true for love.

Love isn’t the sensation of touch when out walking with your significant other. It’s something beyond explanation, deep in parts of the mind that we only explore in our dreams.

So what’s this got to do with sustainability? A lot actually.

I have no way to prove this apart from personal experience and a lot of thinking, but the deep part of our mind where our gut feelings come from is exactly the same place where our true feelings of sustainability lie.

You can’t arrive at feelings of interconnectedness with the world around you through our immediate front-of-mind senses. To understand this truth of compassion, togetherness, and ultimately sustainability, we have to listen to our guts, because they know a lot more than our limited rational minds can compute.

I actually believe that we will only see an end to the destructive spell in human history over the last few centuries when we begin to trust what our guts tell us, when we begin using our feelings to inform decisions instead of rational thought alone.

When we discard excesses of food, drive down the road for some milk or walk past someone in desperate need, I think there is a small part of us that feels the wrongness of these acts – past any rational argument.

So when you have that uncontrollable feeling, tonight or any other night, that makes you understand your place on this earth a little better, listen and trust it. It’s a wealth of unaccessed understanding about our world that we can only begin to make use of if we turn off the music and listen.

Individuals vs. corporations: In defence of personal action

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When chatting about sustainability, it feels almost inevitable that a discussion will break out regarding responsibility. Is it on the shoulders of individuals to make changes for the planet, or do we live our lives normally and let corporations or governments sort it all?

This kind of discussion will usually spring up over a person’s choice to go vegan, take the train instead of flying, or maybe, use a bamboo toothbrush. And I get it. In the face of global emissions, changing diet or toothbrushes seems laughably small and insignificant compared to BP’s annual emissions.

A conversation might go:

“Ahh they’ve got rubbish vegan options here”

“Oh so you’re vegan now are you?”

“Yeah, decided to take the plunge last month for Veganuary”

“Ohhh cool (deep sigh), what made you do it?”

“It was for environmental reasons, those bloomin’ David Attenborough documentaries got me”

“You know in the grand scheme of things it makes no difference right?”

“Yeah well I wanted to do my bit”

“Fair enough but I don’t think there’s any point in me changing my diet, what we need is for government to step in and do a meat tax or something… it’s on them not me

In truth, I’m sympathetic to both sides here. While wanting to do my bit and make sacrifices for the planet, I don’t want to make climate change all about me and my actions at the expense of losing the bigger picture.

On average, a person in the UK has an annual carbon footprint of 10 tonnes per year. Let’s say that with extreme effort, you manage to get your footprint down to 0 – you’re totally, 100% sustainable. That change would account for roughly 3% of one transatlantic flight. Nothing when you look at this.

So the “it’s the responsibility of the corporation” side of the argument wins right? If we really want to combat climate change, we need corporations to act. After all, 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions! .

And typically, at this point in the discussion, the pro-corporate action side is hailed as the victor and all responsibility is alleviated from the individual. Conversation over. They can eat their juicy steak with glee and contentment in the full knowledge that their lack of sacrifice is having as little difference as their friend’s self-denial.

… However, in my opinion, this is a premature end to the discussion and an incorrect conclusion.

Just because corporations make the most significant contributions to global emissions does not mean we as individuals bear no responsibility. After all, they don’t emit GHGs because it’s fun but because we buy it and make it profitable to do so.

Realistically then, what’s going to drive corporations to reduce their emissions and become environmentally friendly?

Personally, I think it’ll take no less than systemic cultural change on a global scale.

Yikes.

So how does that happen?

Well, that’s a tough question, but to try and tackle it we’re going to introduce an American guy named John Shook.

John Shook was the first American manager to be hired by Toyota. Upon being hired, he packed his bags and moved with his family to Japan, immersing himself in the organisation for a prolonged period with the sole purpose of understanding Toyota’s innovative culture.

What John observed was not a group of managers pestering their employees telling them what to think and how to act. But instead, a culture embodied by all employees, regardless of position, promoting experimentation, reflection, and ambition. John was amazed.

John subsequently quizzed the Toyota managers:

“How do you get your employees to think and act so differently, how did you fix the culture this way?”

What John later learnt totally changed his views on culture formation.

The Toyota staff didn’t “fix” the culture but modelled it.

John admitted he used to think culture came from telling people what to think and holding a few “vision” meetings. But instead, what the Toyota staff taught him, is that culture change happens with actions not words. You need leaders that will show rather than just tell people how to act.

Furthermore, once a workforces behaviour changes en masse, their shared values and culture soon follow.

This is how culture changes.

Genius.

As a result of these findings, John developed the following model.

Johns’s simple model shows how, traditionally, he (and most people) used to think culture dictated our values and, subsequently, our behaviour. Which is somewhat true. However, recent research (combined with John’s own experience) suggests the opposite also happens. Our behaviour informs our values.

Consequently, if we want a more pro-environmental culture, we need to change people’s behaviour towards more pro-environmental action.

So how can we change people’s behaviour to favour the planet?

This is a tricky question but research has shown that people use less energy when they think their neighbours care more about the environment (regardless of whether they consider the environment a personal value of theirs). Consequently, typical, pro-environment signals like solar panels spread like wildfire amongst communities because individuals feel significant social pressure from their neighbours.

(Similar to how working behaviours spread in Toyota)

If you don’t believe me, look at how leaders and first followers create a movement in the following video. Think of the weird dancing as a symbol of pro-environmental behaviour – watch what happens!.

First Follower Leadership Lessons – Stabilized and Enlarged

This suggests most climate scientists with their communication strategies and in depth reports have perhaps got the cart before the horse.

Because changing thinking in order to change behaviour doesn’t work, instead what John found in Japan is we must first change behaviour to change thinking.

So we’ve conceded…

More so than individuals, corporations need to act to tackle climate change

And…

Changing corporations requires systemic cultural changes, reflected in voting, consumer, and career preferences etc.

We’ve also learnt…

To change thinking we first must first change behaviour.

And…

Pro-environmental changes spread like wildfire in communities.

So where does this leave us?

What does the world need?

Can we as individuals do anything at all?

I’d argue we can.

I believe to make corporations act we need more sustainability leaders.

(… or weird dancers, if you’ve seen the video above)

Sustainability leaders in our communities

Sustainability leaders in our neighbourhoods.

Sustainability leaders making personal sacrifices and decisions that demonstrate their commitment to looking after the planet

Not because these actions in themselves will save the world but because they signal to communities and neighbourhoods that the environment is important, and should be considered important by them too.

These leaders will initiate small scale local changes in their communities’ behaviour and culture. Just like the managers in Toyota, the weird dancers in the linked video, and the early neighbours who put up solar panels.

And as these behavioural changes go exponential, they inevitably influence wider community values trickling upwards and outwards slowly affecting culture at large – even reaching those big corporations (no hiding now!).

Therefore, perhaps the greatest individual impact of choosing to reduce our personal footprint is not in the directly saved emission but rather in the expression of our values signalled to our local networks.

So yes, the corporations are mostly to blame (the corporation side wins the debate). However, we still have a responsibility to act, not waiting idly, but taking the charge as leaders and first followers. Because our choice to participate in the sustainability revolution (or lay low and eat steak) has more impact than we realise.

… so go vegan, install solar panels, rewild your garden… (dance weirdly)

Because when your friend sitting opposite is eating that juicy steak, they cannot help but ask themselves…

“Damn, am I missing out? Maybe I should make some changes too”

Be a leader

Be a first follower

Change the culture.

Further reading:

Can Nudging Play a Role to Promote Environmental behaviour?

John Shook: Lean Transformation Model

How sustainability is going to change your life

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A lesson from the 90s

In the mid 90s there was a buzz in the air. A new technology was on the horizon and the business world was starting to get their head around the opportunities associated with it. The internet was just around the corner and it was going to change everything.

You can bet your bottom dollar that your average successful 50-something business(wo)man rode the dot-com wave – in some form or another – all the way into the doorway of their second home in Padstow.

As Peter Thiel (PayPal) recounts, “The dot-com bubble was a goldrush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of it, and no shortage of people to chase it … Appending .com to your name could double your value overnight” (Zero to One). The titans of business today were forged in the dot-com furnace – fueled by limitless information.

The dot-com wave irreversibly changed everyone’s lives. For the better? That’s not what this blog is about. The important point here is that today, 20 years after the large-scale adoption of the internet, we spend a sizable portion of our days thinking about the internet. In the eight hours a day we spend at work, we spend at least two of those hours thinking about the internet.

An important clarification: what I mean by “thinking about the internet” isn’t the time we spend navigating the internet, but the time that we spend making decisions in which the internet is a player. “Thinking” in this should could be more accurately thought of as consideration.

The next dot-com bubble

In the mid 90s, the internet was a fringe concept: open to debate and not universally accepted as a norm. At this point, the innovators and early adopters were turning the wheel and setting sail towards new ways of conducting their business which included the internet. The laggards and late majority, had their fingers in their ears and took the “I don’t think the internet’s going to change our business too much” stance (Context if you don’t understand these groups).

In the end, it was those who had full faith in this new way of thinking (pre-2000 in the graph above), changing their internal decision making to adopt an unproven and futuristic way of thinking who shaped the world we live in today. Those who were resistant, were forced to join the future at some point – and most likely don’t have that second home in Padstow today.

It will be no surprise — especially given the nature of our work at Future Shift — that I will pull this internet analogy into the world of 2022: a world just starting to adopt sustainable thinking into business. If you add 20 years to each of the values in the X axis in the graph above, you are seeing a picture of what the future trends will look like for sustainability being adopted as a core element of a business day-to-day.

For businesses and the people that work in them, thinking about sustainability today is just like what thinking about the internet was like 20 years ago. One had to think about a complicated, risky, futuristic system that we’re all moving towards, and no one had any idea of the social consequences. I can completely understand why people are opposed to making complicated, systemic changes — there’s definitely a lot less brain-ache involved with keeping your fingers in your ears (but I guess that’s why only 2.5% of the population are innovators). It is the job of this 2.5%, who quite like the risk and brain-ache to make thinking about sustainability accessible to everyone – just like Microsoft, Google and Apple did in the 00s. This is the business challenge of our working lives (unless you are in your second home in Padstow) and one that Future Shift is embarking on now.

The Microsoft’s, Google’s, Fa***ook’s and Apple’s of the world succeeded because they took the unbearably complicated concept that was the internet and made it so simple your nan could use it. This is the nature of the sustainable business arms race of the next 20 years. The internet’s market size is about $2 trillion. If you’ve heard Mark Carney speak on sustainability in the financial space, you’ll know that $2 trillion are baby numbers compared with what must be circulated to combat the climate crisis.

How sustainability is going to change your life

So, how is sustainability going to change your life? If you are a director or working in the innovation space, then everything you’ve already read is for you and how sustainability will penetrate your every business thought over the next 20 years.

For everyone else, think about your day-to-day job — and I want you to be honest here — and answer the question: “do I think about sustainability in my every-day decisions?” (sustainability here means how this decision will compromise the ability of people to live forever). If the graph above is anything to go by, only 3/10 of you can answer yes to this, and that’s pretty accurate in my experience of working with developing sustainable thinking in businesses.

Here are just some examples of how sustainability will be involved in your day-to-day, for some of the most common roles in a business:

  • Procurement – “keeping our supply chain in line with carbon limits/taxes is the bane of my life!”
  • Operations – “what is the climate-related disaster risk for our factories in Bangladesh? This is the second factory closed down due to flooding this week!”
  • Recruitment – “no innovative or progressive graduates are looking to work for my business”
  • Sales – “no-one wants to buy our individually plastic-wrapped dishwasher tablets any more”
  • R&D – any future facing role will have to be resilient to climate risks. This is perhaps the only role within a business, where thinking about our longevity as a species is close to enough, but people in R&D are kind of cheating because it’s their job to think about the future.
  • HR – “Climate migrants have created new challenges for language and ethnic diversity in our workplace”

In reality, a lot of these problems are on people’s minds right now and will become every-day consideration in the all too near future. When we get to a sizable chunk of the world thinking about these ideas before they are risks, that is when we transition into a sustainable society and start to address the fundamental sustainable issues we face today.

“Invest in emotional intelligence and emotional resilience because for the first time in history people will have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their life”

Yuval Noah Harari on what children should be taught today.

How Future Shift are going to change your life

Our mission in the world is to redesign sustainability for business. Our mission for our clients is to change everyone’s job description to include sustainability principles, thus nudging people to start thinking about sustainability and pulling sustainability into the equation when making day-to-day company decisions, however seemingly futile.

If we change enough people’s job descriptions, we begin to redesign what sustainability means to business – not some limitation or harsh boundary in which a business can operate, but an ideological shift within a business’ inner workings that can be induced by nothing more than the ability to see the world a little clearer.

Dystopian Anger: Our Why

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At Future Shift, we’re lucky enough to have an office on College Green and left work on Wednesday, stumbling into the protest in support of Ukraine and its people. People are angry. Angry that we still have this narrative forced upon us every day whilst the rich and powerful succumb to monstrous acts of greed.

Anti-Russia Protesters on College Green (source)

Recently, more than ever, I’ve been thinking about the reason that Oscar and I started Future Shift. Our why.

We were sick to death with the status quo of our environment. Our environment, where deceit has become more common than the truth.

Where we are fed false hope after false hope that those in charge are fully supportive for a change to our ‘now’. The ‘now’ is a place where the simple existence of our planet has been thrown into jeopardy by the resource-guzzling structures that have dominated the economy to date.

Our position, as sustainability consultants, is intertwined with conflict between people and businesses that truly want to innovate and disrupt, yet are held back by a huge lack of resource support from a government that has promised net zero.

This is amplified by a ‘Build Back Greener’ campaign in light of hosting COP26. Subsequently followed investment to increase our coal mining capacity, expand Bristol Airport and drive public transport into the ground by increasing rail fares whilst cutting rail and bus funding.

The establishment has done everything in its power to desensitise the narrative of demonic greed.

When a dictator becomes so powerful because of the belly of oil and natural gas he’s monopolised (oh yeah, that resource we are still dependent on, that has every country salivating with entrenched jealousy) creates a humanitarian crisis, it does well to survive the 24 hour news cycle we have created.

A change has to come in our lifetimes and we started Future Shift to rip up the current state of ‘now’. To innovate alongside the fundamental cogs of this planet, businesses. To propel those businesses that intend to disrupt their sectors and demonstrate that there is a better way of doing business than is institutionally embedded to us.

Future Shift was born from anger. Dissatisfied with the rate of positive climate action, faithless that those responsible for change are capable of actioning what is needed. Yet still hopeful that we, however small we may feel, can shift that status quo to a system that can coexist with our planet.

Being angry is exactly what we need to be. Being angry at the current state of our world gets us out of bed in the morning. Channelling this anger into working action is the fuel that powers the Future Shift engine (watch out EV market).

I’m pretty sure this entry turned out to be a lot more politically driven than I originally intended. But f**k it, I’m angry.

What About… Blue Carbon?

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Originally uploaded Mar 23, 2021

As a passionate marine biologist at heart, I watched Netflix’s Seaspiracy with anguish, much like the rest of us. However, I felt like there was a big forgotten piece of the puzzle that was left out, Blue Carbon.

Protecting and restoring the UK’s marine ecosystems have the obvious benefits of enhancing biodiversity, increasing fish stocks and improved coastal protection. However, there has not been enough attention given to the enormous role our marine ecosystems play as ‘carbon sinks’. In the UK alone, up to 450 million tonnes of carbon are stored as blue carbon every year – almost half of the emissions from the entire global transport sector!

What is Blue Carbon?

Just like trees and other plants photosynthesise and grow, taking in CO² from the atmosphere and store it, a process known as sequestration, marine ecosystems such as seagrass meadows, salt marshes and mangroves ‘draw down’ carbon from its surrounding water and atmosphere. The storage of this carbon is called blue carbon.

Why Should We Care?

Globally, nature based solutions could account for up ⅓ of all the carbon mitigations required to reduce the global temperature by 1.5C. Recently, there has been a huge push for companies to offset their carbon emissions by investing in tree planting schemes, since the UN established its REDD+ programme, designed to halt developing countries selling their forests for commercial logging and other destructive practices, instead incentivising them to retain and restore the trees as carbon offsetting. Unfortunately, no such mechanism exists to finance the conservation of marine ecosystems.

In the UK, 38% of our coastal waters are designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), where formal regulations are in place to protect the ecosystems from destructive practices such as dredging and overfishing. However these MPAs have been labelled as mere ‘paper parks’ after a recent study by the Global Fishing Watch found that 98% of them were still subject to bottom trawling and dredging.

What now?

Later this year, the UK will be hosting COP26 – the UN Climate Change Conference – in Glasgow. The ocean and its blue carbon stores are a crucial part of the many urgent and varied solutions required to address the climate crisis.

The Marine Conservation Society has released a new report in partnership with Rewilding Britain. Blue Carbon – Ocean-based solutions to fight the climate crisis outlines the importance of the UK’s seas in helping the UK to reach its goal of net zero by 2050, and 2045 for Scotland. Dr Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at the Marine Conservation Society:

“Carbon contained in marine and coastal ecosystems must be considered in the same way as our woodlands and peatbogs…critical to the UK’s carbon strategy. Our report outlines how vital blue carbon solutions are to an effective strategy which reaches net zero by 2050.“We’re calling on the UK Government and devolved administrations to act with urgency to invest in, co-develop and implement a four nation Blue Carbon Strategy.”

The Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain recently proposed its 3 point Blue Carbon strategy to assist the UK in its pathway to Net Zero 2050:

  1. Increase the rate of rewilding in the UK, to stop bottom trawling and dredging and to supply the finances to govern the MPAs properly with enforced sanctions.
  2. Commit to Blue Carbon initiatives, currently the UK does not account for Blue Carbon in its decarbonisation strategy.
  3. Develop and support sustainable fishing practices and aquaculture (ecosystem – based approach), providing proper investment for innovative low emission techniques.

Marine Ecosystem Restoration Schemes

We talk to a lot of SMEs looking into their decarbonisation strategy, about tree planting schemes, mitigating what is possible and then offsetting what is left. In the future however, it would be great to offer a strategy that also enables our coastal waters to flourish and grow in the same way. Now is the time for us all to ride the wave of growing support and demand action from the UK government.

The report, Blue Carbon – Ocean-based solutions to fight the climate crisis, is available to read here.

How to Spot Greenwash in Sustainability Reporting: A Beginner’s Guide

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Originally uploaded Jul 20, 2021

What do we mean when we say the word sustainability?

This may seem like a trivial way to begin this guide but this is an absolutely vital start if we’re going to address the first hurdle one must climb when talking about sustainability.

When you think about what sustainability is, like, the picture or definition that pops into your head; I can almost guarantee that what you thought is different from what I and practically everyone else (yes, I’m talking to all four of Future Shift’s loyal blog readers) thinks sustainability is.

Unlike, say, a pencil, which in this part of the world will almost certainly conjure up this image (left), sustainability in our collective mind looks more like this (right). On the right is what is called a floating signifier in linguistics. A signifier because it points to a specific image or idea and floating because the image or idea is unspecific amongst a population. The word sustainability floats around without a common definition which makes it almost impossible to talk about.

And I will start with my hypothesis here: that because the definition of sustainability is not agreed upon (and in some cases not fully understood by those advising sustainability), greenwashing is endemic in the world of business and sustainability consulting. This is because of a structural problem and not any malintent on the end of sustainability consultants, but all the same something that should be talked about and addressed through education and sound communication.

This is where my definition of sustainability comes into play. Just like an anthropologist must be aware of their positionality (their social or political stance relative to what they’re studying), you must be aware of my stance: which is chiefly biological. That is, that sustainability is a status of a business or person that would make this person or business exist within nutrient, water and carbon cycles indefinitely all the while not relying on existing structures of inequality to do so.

Now that the definition and hypothesis is out of the way we can get to our greenwash guide. I’ll run through three things to look out for to spot greenwashing in sustainability reporting.

1. Lack of independent reporting body or framework

This one’s especially important for large or impact-driven companies (companies that have impact at the heart of their business model or value proposition) that have sizeable budgets set aside for sustainability reporting.

If a company is working within a given framework (like the Science Based Targets Initiative for carbon reporting for example) or have brought in an independent reporting body to do the heavy lifting with respect to the numbers (like a university or research institute), they are already taking a big first step towards cutting out bias and greenwash from their sustainability report. Riverford Organic Farmers partnered with the University of Exeter and independent researchers Savanta to sort out their carbon foot-printing and plastic packaging reporting respectively and a produced a stellar, evidence-driven sustainability report as a result.

On the flip side, if a company is doing everything in-house, using their own reporting methodology, you’ll have to do some digging before their reporting approach can be considered greenwash free.

2. Lack of accountability

Accountability is important in reporting and there are tricky ways that companies get around accountability for things like sustainability commitments. One law to live by is that numbers always speak louder than words.

If words are chosen instead of numbers to define a commitment or action taken towards sustainability, then you need to look out for weasel words. These are words like ‘supporting’ ‘encouraging’ and ‘promoting’ which sound all well and nice, but when it comes to sustainability reports, an action to ‘encourage staff to be more environmentally friendly’ carries with it no accountability. This is because the extent of encouragement is up to the company here. It could be just putting an A4 print out over the printer telling staff to print two sided; a valuable nudge, but as a serious sustainability commitment, this is nothing more than wordplay to ensure a company is not held accountable for doing not much at all.

A better way to approach this ‘encouraging of staff’ can be seen from Riverford Organic Farmers who give a free lunch to anyone who cycles to work. There is no ambiguity here and, though not a number, is something that Riverford can be held accountable for if they fail to deliver.

3. Commitments without clear roadmaps

This one’s high up on my pet peeves list and perhaps for me the most telling sign of greenwash. Let’s take Net Zero commitments for example, something that every company seems to be churning out these days.

Something I see all too often are half-commitments that don’t have a clear cut way of how to get there. An example I came across recently is Bristol’s Net Zero 2030 commitment which is mapped in this 120-page report. Their commitment relies on so many forces that are out of their control making it very difficult to actually call this a true commitment; more greenwishing than malicious greenwash, but still reduces the integrity of commitments all the same. Some of the assumptions are that the UK energy mix will be pretty much zero carbon by 2030, all 20-25,000 new homes in Bristol will be built with no carbon emissions, and that citizens will replace gas boilers (which have a life expectancy of 15 years) with air source heat pumps within the next 8.5 years.

This last one, where Bristol residents have to replace fossil fuel boilers with an electricity-powered alternative is particularly tricky as it passes on a pivotal part of Bristol’s commitment to the consumer. If we don’t see significant policy-led incentives for consumers (especially those who don’t have the disposable income to replace a working boiler) to make the shift, this commitment can be considered greenwash on a city level.

Good roadmaps, based on existing technologies are vital for sustainability plans that are free of greenwash. There are countries and companies that are net zero right now, so waiting for the system to change to suit your commitment leaves commitments and sustainability plans empty and false.

Look out for the three mentioned things in sustainability reporting to spot the green from the greenwash. At Future Shift, we are committed to evidence and science-based sustainable transition and reporting. We dig into the norms to create valuable resources that allow our clients to steer clear of greenwashing and implement true sustainability.

The Net Zero Race Problem

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Originally uploaded May 19, 2021

So there’s a race problem with net zero is there? Well yes, but we’re not going to be talking about racial inequality today. Instead, in this entry we’ll be digging into the UNFCCC’s framing of their recent campaign: Race To Zero.

A little background on Race to Zero. It’s the world’s largest ever net zero commitment alliance that covers half of the world’s GDP and one quarter of carbon emissions. The UNFCCC is an international climate change treaty. Their official objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This objective is inherently global due to the transboundary nature of gaseous emissions and climate systems. Now to my problem with race. Race to Zero has used a flurry of race-derived language for their campaign. Terms like High-Level Champions, the Starting Line and Leadership Criteria form a large part of the campaign lexicon and set a precedent for how this project will be thought of over the next 30 years. The decision to use this kind of analogy is one that I think perfectly demonstrates some of the biggest issues with Western ideas of environmental justice.

The Starting Line

When thinking about the kind of image a “race” signals, a video I saw on Fa***ook a few years ago comes to mind. In this video, teenagers are told they will win $100 for finishing first in a race. They are then told to take a step forward for certain advantages they’ve had access to – a personal tutor, private education etc. We end up with a pretty good visual representation of inequality in the school system as Boris and David both step one step to victory. If we transfer this analogy to the Race to Zero, we can start to imagine a more accurate “Starting Line” for this race. Qualification for this race requires a lot of reporting to rigorous standards; which means expensive consultants and the campaign immediately takes a hit on the inclusion side of things. In reality, competitors in the global south (who are starting some 50 years behind the Western economies in this race) are actually far more climate positive than competitors in developed regions that form a large part of the parties in this race. They use low-technology, human centred methods of production that are aligned with the natural system they rely on; but they won’t be recognised for that. They will instead be shunned by other international institutions for being uncompetitive on the global market. So there are a lot of companies, nations and industries that are not even allowed on the starting grid, no matter their low impact or alignment with the overall goal: emitting an environmentally just amount of carbon.

The Rules of the Race

The rules of this race are governed by an umpire who is ruthless and has a firm grip on the competitors. The rules of this race are of course the same rules that govern how we function and progress as a human race: the market economy rulebook. To cut a long story short, mother nature has never had a seat at the market economy’s table and thus, this race will be governed by rules that deny nature’s role in decision making.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, right?

As humans, we have never been so good at sticking to a fair set of rules, be it that time one race enslaved another for a few hundred years or that time women had a lower social/economic/political standing than men… oh wait. If there are rules, we will cheat and historically the biggest culprits when it comes to disregarding a fair set of rules in modern history are the same groups that are hosting the event. Uh oh!

The Finishing Line

A race with a starting line implies that there is also a finishing line. This is perhaps the most subtle but destructive part of the Race to Zero framing. Much like how the “when I get this promotion…” or “when I buy this new car I’ll be happy” mentality is conducive to poor mental wellbeing in today’s world, the implication of a finishing line or endpoint is a wild and nonsensical thought when it comes to natural systems. The concept of natural (as opposed to human) time itself – and I wont get too spiritual here – is anything but linear. Just as there are no straight lines in nature, there are no beginnings and no ends, only cycles and new beginnings. To imply that when we reach net zero our climate change problem is somehow also at its end is Western idealism at its finest. No grounding in anything but what aligns with our ideas of how the world works in our collective brain, however dissociated from the truth.

The Awards Ceremony

When we begin to approach 2050, I’m sure that there will be a lot of people in a New York conference centre patting the suited back of one and other for their Net Zero race participation medals.

What we as a collective entity are participating in is not a race, it’s a survival cycle. To be champions of this survival cycle we must (together!) see deep realisation of where we exist in relation to nature as well as innovation and prosperity. Let us not overlook those who have already won the Race to Zero.

The Sustainability Youth Deficit

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Originally uploaded Mar 23, 2021

Not long after Oscar and I started up Future Shift, we soon realised that the current state of sustainability in business was a space dominated by those over 50 and, when it comes to sustainability we think that this presents a problem.

The voice for change often comes from those who are listened to least. The youth have stubbornly campaigned for years, utilising their social media niches to highlight the importance of addressing the global climate emergency.

Yet we live in a world where older consultants are often the voice of reason a CEO will turn to in their time of need. Whilst this consultant provides a wealth of experience that drowns a newbie’s CVs in comparison, is it not time that we started to listen to the younger generation’s a bit more to solve this increasingly difficult situation the ‘adults’ have gotten us all into?

After all it took Greta Thunberg who, at the age of 16, mobilised the progressive force of schoolchildren to turn people’s heads and start addressing the global climate crisis.

Younger generations are not just interested in having a seat at the table anymore, they want to set the table.

However, this requires a dramatic shift from the status quo…

The Divide

Climate change will affect us all differently. A 85 year old has a far smaller stake less in the future than a 15 year old school child – why should they care about what the world will be like in 50 years?

This divide in attitude is clearly reflected in a Yale study, that found that 73% of millenials said that global warming was personally important to them, compared to only 58% of the Silent generation. However when you consider that the average age of a CEO within the fortune 500 companies is 58 years old (Crist Kolder Associates.) and has increased by 11 years since 2005, it is a worrying trend that businesses may continue to have less incentive to drive the change we need.

Right: Yale study (2021); left: Crist Kolder Associates (2019)

The younger we are, one’s ability to change the course of the climate crisis increases, yet the older we are, our responsibility for the climate crisis also increases . This trade-off has caused a huge divide, with the youth calling for action and accountability whilst the older generations stick to the status quo or, at best, apply incremental changes in the name of damage limitation.

What Next?

Challenging times require challenging innovations, if the past 12 months and 3 days have taught us anything it is that we are all capable of adapting to quick change. Mobilising workforces through the virtual home office has become the norm and with that has come the imperative principle that many businesses need to utilise the right technology to overcome the virtual obstacles in their way.

“We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein.

This same principle is also crucial if businesses, the cogs of the economy, are to take action and frontier the sustainable movement of today. By using new technology and employing new ideas from young people we can implement real change, coincidentally we have just released our new online platform that can assist with this.

Happy International Women’s Day to a few of my favourite women

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Okay. First thing’s first, let’s get the elephant out of the room and back to the savannah where she belongs. We’re a team of predominantly white middle-class males writing a post for our blog (which is kind of for-profit) about women. I’m very aware of shallow corporate IWD posts, but this certainly isn’t going to stop me shouting about some badass women.

Just in case you don’t read this until the end. If you do one thing, please check out Invisible Army, a project giving a voice to those who are too often denied the recognition they deserve and consider donating here.

Today I want to talk about three of my favourite women. First we have Tina and Carina, founders of Invisible Army (fyi, Tina is my mum). Second, is Simone Weil (pronounced ‘VAY’), an early 20th-century philosopher, all round badass, and a giant source of inspiration for me of late.

Simone Weil (left), and Tina (centre) and Carina (right) fighting for truth.

I’m going to start with a short bit about Simone Weil who, among many other insights that speak a deep truth about people and society, gave us the idea of “a need for roots”. It’s going to be very difficult not to bring more of her thinking into this entry – but I will try my hardest. When you keep yourself at a safe distance from everything that’s going on in the world, it prevents you from being able to see the world in a truly clear way. The women I’m writing about today understand this truth and have incorporated it into their lives in a beautiful and incredibly meaningful way. In the eyes of Simone Weil, people in modern society often suffer from a lack of what she calls the “needs of the soul”. These psychological needs of the soul are just as important as food and shelter to live a flourishing and dignified life. Without them we are starving and unable to live fully.

One of the needs of the soul Weil talks about is the need for roots. Just like a tree, the roots of a person are essential for a healthy existence. Simone Weil believed the conditions created by modern society are such that people are not at all set up to develop these healthy root systems. Consequently, many people will fail to lay down a strong and stable network of roots – an essential part of themselves.

People live their lives as part of a society, and one’s relationship to this society informs who we are. This relationship between the individual and the collective is interdependent, meaning that you actually exist partially through your connections with your surroundings. The connections to the human world around you are your roots. This brings me to Tina and Carina, who have decided not to keep themselves at a safe distance from the world around them in order to tell us an uncomfortable truth about the way that our society is organised. Together, Tina and Carina have spent the last few years telling the story of the 40,000 unpaid carers in Bristol. The project tells the story of members of an army, fighting selflessly to ensure the wellbeing and dignity of loved ones and family members with conditions that require constant attention and care.

An installation representing the 40,138 unpaid carers in Bristol with origami flowers, and pictures and stories in the background.

This army, despite being over 100 times larger than the UK military, is largely invisible, kept that way by a society that values practically every other profession over the essential care of others. I categorise unpaid care work as a profession because it is most certainly a full time job just like any other. If hard work was really equivalent to one’s paycheck at the end of the month, this group of people would be amongst Bristol’s wealthiest. Imagine that, where the larger houses with bathrooms big enough for people to receive dignified personal care and sit-down showers were reserved for families with chronic illnesses and not your private school-educated investment banker. I can see Simone Weil smiling from her grave when I think about how Carina and Tina fight for Bristol’s unpaid carers’ right to roots. The project involves Tina taking portraits of unpaid carers and the receivers of care while Carina records their lives, worries, passions and dreams in writing.

Simone Weil would see unpaid carers in the UK today as people who have been denied the opportunity to lay down a solid set of roots. This is due to their social isolation, made worse by a lack of institutional support for unpaid carers, making it difficult to participate meaningfully in society. An unglamorous profession by society’s standards, care work is rarely seen for its real value, above anything money can describe. The fact that this work is largely unpaid other than sub-living-wage financial support is also at the heart of the issue here. Sadly, monetary value is the primary signal of something’s worth. You can see the problem here. Invisible Army lays roots far and wide through their respectful exposure of the lives of unpaid carers. Roots are created in all directions; between the general public, often blind to the unfair treatment of unpaid carers by the governments they elect into power, and the unpaid care community.

Roots are the bedrock of a resilient, equitable and compassionate society. Without them life lacks richness and depth. I believe, now more than ever, that the problems at the top of our social agenda can be solved by stronger, deeper roots. To Carina, Tina and Simone, I say thank you for your decisions to seek truth, and expose uncomfortable realities. I am grateful for women like yourselves that inform and challenge my incomplete view of the world. We don’t have much to offer apart from my unwavering support and hopefully some exposure to the investment bankers who have a little left over at the end of the month which they may consider donating to Invisible Army’s just giving page.

For more on Simone Weil and the need for roots, listen here.