Book Review: Financial Times Briefings – Sustainable Business

A few months ago, I read at the book:  Financial Times Briefings – Sustainable Business, By Brian Clegg.

It is a book aimed at executives on incorporating sustainability into their corporations. Not unlike a financial analyst’s primer on certain new technologies for investors.

It covers, what is sustainable business. Why do it. Real life examples by early adopters. Strategy on how to do it. Building the business case. Managing. Measuring.

A key point: don’t greenwash. Ie. Do an advertising campaign to say that your organization is green, when nothing is fundamentally different. Or perhaps, no different at all from the old energy hogging, polluting, unsustainable, methods that your company has done for the past 50 years.

The book emphasizes a number of times, that executive commitment and involvement is key to successfully making the change.

There were two case studies in the book that I really noticed. They apply not only to sustainability. But also to systems, and business, in general. They are short, eloquent, and to the point, so I’ll just quote them directly.

The hamburger standard, page 28

British Airways’ staff fly to all corners of the globe, and the company’s policies and procedures manual had a huge section dedicated to allowances that could be provided for staff travelling on airline business. For every country would be listed specific figures to be paid for each meal, for overnight accommodation and for local transportation. It was a full time job for several people just to keep this information up to date, and every traveler had to spend time consulting it. This was a bureaucratic solution to a problem.

The suggestion that BA ignored was to replace this labour intensive, thick pile of paper and many hours of wasted time with a simple guide. Across the board, the allowance would be stated in multiples of a McDonald’s mal. For example, a lunch allowance might be three meals, dinner allowance five meals. This did not mean that you were expected to eat five Big Mac meals for dinner, but rather that the cost of five Big Mac meals in that country would be the amount you
were allowed to spend on dinner. Immediately the manual would have shrunk to become a one-page table, and the values would rarely need to be altered, as the pricing mechanism ensured that it automatically followed local inflation and deflation. The approach was simply too radical for the bureaucracy. lt didn’t have backing from the top and so was never implemented.

Case study: Bigger pipes make better carpets, page 66

When Interface Corporation was setting up a new carpet manufacturing facility in Shanghai, it needed, as is usually the case in such facilities, to put in pipes to pump around the fluids used in the process. The standard pump for this set-up consumed around 70 kilowatts of energy. However, the designers questioned this, stripping back the requirement to first principles.

Usually piping is fitted around the placement of equipment, resulting in convoluted pipework with lots of bends and twists. The longer and twistier the pipework, the more resistance it provides to the fluid flow, hence the more power required to push liquids around it. Longer pipes also lose more heat, requiring more expensive insulation.

In addition, the standard approach uses relatively cheap, narrow pipes – this narrowness means that it takes even more power to push the fluid around. Fatter pipes are more expensive, but concentrating on that cost ignores the savings that can be made by using smaller, cheaper pumps. By using fatter pipes and managing the equipment around the pipe runs, rather than the other way round, the pump required was just over 5 kilowatts – a 93 per cent saving in energy used.

The Interface Corporation example demonstrates the danger of making assumptions in the design of your premises. The same, of course, goes for the design of your products. Always be prepared to ask the question ‘Why?’ This is a powerful aid for business creativity and an excellent stimulation to increase sustainability. It may be that there is no alternative to what you were already doing, but until you have asked ‘Why do we need to use this much energy?’ or ‘Why are we using these scarce resources?’ or ‘Why can’t we pay a living wage?’ you have not truly
explored the options.

Brilliant!  I often do this type of questioning in the systems work that I do. Why do we need to do those processes? Are these assumptions really correct? How can I make this go faster? More accurate? More intuitive?

Unfortunately, so much of what I have seen in systems work is that managers and developers add more complexity, upon complexity, upon complexity. To the point, where you -must- use the computer and the software to figure things out! This is differentiated from just removing the complexity altogether and replacing it with simplicity, as in the British Airways example.

So much of getting to the right solution is just asking the right questions. Like some of the questions I asked on this blog about Internal combustion engines, Electric Vehicles, and CO2.

It turns out that the Financial Times also hosts a conference on sustainability.

The book is quick, to the point, and as you can tell by the quotes, very eloquent. It is highly recommended. Do read it!

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