This blog post is an interview with world renowned journalist and freelance writer, Leon Gettler. I first came across Leon’s work when I began reading the Melbourne-based newspaper, The Age, via the web. His blog Management Line appealed to me and over time I began to really enjoy his writing and the ideas he was exploring. This interview was conducted some weeks ago so I have paraphrased Leon where required as the notes I took at the time were far from thorough. New bloggers take note, find a way to record your interviews, it will significantly improve the time it takes you to get things up on your blog.

Q1 - Please provide a brief bio covering your background and what you currently do in the field of sustainability

I have been in journalism for many years, in fact decades. I am now 51 and started when I was 18-19 as a way to support myself through uni. About 12-13 years ago I began reporting on politics and industrial relations. Prior to this I had done smaller stuff such as police courts but my focus changed to be towards the world of business. This looked interesting so I carved a niche for myself in this field. I was very interested in corporate governance and how businesses are run. Prior to me taking this on no one was doing it before. I have since written a book on dysfunctional organisations. I was at The Age for many years and decided it was time to freelance. I had a good name and a good reputation. I was interested in lots of areas and had lots of points of contact. I figured if worst came to worst I could always go back to my old job. I now write for BRW, The Australian Financial Review, Australian Marketing Institute (AMI), HR Monthly, Ethical Corporation and G Magazine.

In terms of how I came to be working in the field of sustainability I probably began to become interested in climate change about 8 years ago. In fact, I am fascinated by it. When I began writing on this topic I was the only one doing it. I followed the topic very closely and began writing a lot about it. I really wanted to understand every facet of it as I find the many dimensions fascinating. It involves economics, environmental considerations, carbon trading and taxation, the whole business case around it is something I find very interesting. I have found it to be a fascinating field to watch. Most businesses are all for it as long as the cost of going carbon neutral is also cost neutral. The Australian Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) cannot be cost neutral. Users will pay more for electricity. I guess it is clear that we need behaviour changes but these don’t seem so likely at the moment.

An example of a big change that took a while and would have got nowhere if the government wasn’t serious is bans on smoking. This message has seeped through over time. Government changes were a necessary part of this process. Governments around Australia introduced anti-smoking legislation and now you can’t smoke in most public buildings. This changed people’s attitudes to smoking and over the long term it has had a considerable impact on the number of people who smoke.

Editor’s note. The same could be said for seatbelts in cars. We all look back and wonder why people needed a law to tell them to do something that is so obviously in their self-interest to do, however, cars were fitted with seat belts for many years before it became the law.

We need something similar to aid the cause of sustainability. For example, every building to go up must have sustainability principles applied throughout it’s planning, design and construction.

At the moment we are lacking direction from government. They seem to be reluctant to do anything that will hurt the punters. This is where the votes are. In terms of political stability, a carbon regime that is bi-partisan is the only model that can work. Tax laws can be changed by new governments but whatever we choose to do in terms of the CPRS needs to be able to withstand changes in government.

Q2 - What is your motivation for working in the field of sustainability?

The future of the world depends upon it. I find it a fascinating field because it captures everything, consumer patterns, the way companies are run, science, economics, it touches just about every area. It is such an interesting area to be reporting on. It is an area where no one knows the answers yet and there are some really interesting debates going on. Take for instance carbon trading. There is currently quite a bit of horse trading going on between airlines. Power stations prefer a carbon tax but how do you make a carbon tax global? Does it need to be to be effective? I love to follow these issues.

Q3 - What are the key resources you employ in the conduct of your work (an example of some that I have listed for readers is located here)?

I have contacts, lots of contacts. So one of my key resources is the people I talk to. I also trawl furiously through news, constantly, there is no shortage of news out there about this stuff, you simply have to know what to look for. I have found that you need to be pretty disciplined in your search and not be distracted by other stuff. I try to focus on issues that are current, say carbon trading, and the issues surrounding it. For example, I hardly read anything about Carmichael Hunt.

Editor’s note. This interview was conducted the day after Carmichael Hunt, star performer in Australia’s National Rugby League, announced he was switching football codes to play Australian Rules Football for what will be a newly created club in the Australian Football League, the Gold Coast Football Club. As someone who played Aussie Rules for 11 years and coached for four I was disappointed with myself for not knowing about what Leon was talking about at the time. Moving from Victoria to New South Wales has put me in the dark when it comes to footy news so to a footy tragic like myself Carmichael Hunt’s decision IS news!
Q4 – Based on that backhander towards the traditional media, I would like to know whether or not you think it can be relied upon?

It has a role but is increasingly less relevant. I think people have a voracious appetite for news. I remember a recent article I read where Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, was interviewed by Spiegel. He says that he never picks up the San Francisco Chronicle, why would he when he has got far more up to date news through RSS and Twitter.

People like to talk about the affect that Generation Y are having on the workplace but when we look beyond that to Generation Z, those who are 14-15 years old now, they don’t even read papers. If they really want the news they go to the TV or internet. This will really reshape the way the media operates. People like news but they don’t want to pay for it. Banner ads are very unpopular. Put simply, the internet is killing advertising as we know it.

Traditional media will have to rethink the way they go about advertising. Do you provide at a cost what someone else can provide for free?

Take a hypothetical situation, we will provide news and information but if you really need to know more about this topic you can subscribe here for premium content eg. Information regarding the CPRS that is highly tailored for your business needs.

I recently read a fascinating piece in The Times. It related to a 15 year old boy who was doing work experience at JP morgan. They asked him to do a study on how teens treat traditional media sources. He was quoted as saying that “email is what we use if we need to speak with old people”. One of his other findings is that Facebook is ok but they don’t use a lot of that. They don’t pay for newspapers and don’t pay for music.

I’ve noticed that there is a real hunger for communication and I think that this explains the amazing growth of social networking. As a result of this hunger for information there are marginal fringe newsletters appearing everywhere.

Back in the day when the mainstream weren’t mobile and there was no internet there were fewer choices. Put simply, the business model will have to change to accommodate the proliferation of choice.

Q5 - What are some examples of work you have been involved in that you think may be inspirational to other sustainability practitioners?

At the moment I have been working on this plan for a year, it is hard, and there have been lots of false starts. However, I am keeping on going. I have registered a domain for a magazine that will be focussing on climate change and the business case around it. At the moment the bulk of the material will relate to renewable energy sources. I have a dummy site setup that I am using to get corporate backing. The delivery model that I am working on is one that will aim to get it backed by through corporate investment. It is a model that could work, however, there have been no shortage of hurdles. I have been approaching organisations that are meant to be backing sustainability ventures, however, if it doesn’t have government funding they are not willing to support it. So it is not up and running yet as every time I go into partnership with people and advise them that I can’t see us making money for three years the conversation stops. I am not doing it for the money so that isn’t a great hurdle to me. However, as I have been negotiating with entrepreneurs they often want control of the idea beyond what I am willing to offer. As I said to start with, there have been plenty of false starts, but I will persist.

Human endeavour is an inspirational thing. I recently interviewed a very brave guy who struck out on his own to start a business that closely aligned with his value set. A few years down the track that one man show has expanded considerably both in employee numbers, client base and positive impact.

This blog post is the first in what will become a regular feature on this site and profiles the achievements of Terence Jeyaretnam, founder of Net Balance Management Group. If you are wondering how I found out about Terence then you probably haven't read the Engineers Australia magazine in a while. As an engineer and a member of the Society of Sustainability and Environmental Engineering (SSEE) I have been reading Terence's articles on sustainability for about five years now, in fact, it is pretty much all I read in that mag. This is not a comment on the quality of the magazine, simply an indication of my priorities when it comes to reading the rest of it. The following is an excerpt from the Net Balance website:

Welcome to Net Balance

Net Balance is a different kind of company.

The Net Balance team is made up of energetic, passionate individuals who see sustainability as core business, presenting exciting opportunities for innovation, industry leadership, risk management, and cost reduction. That’s why Net Balance has become one of the leading providers of sustainability advice and assurance in Australia.

I asked Terence a number of questions to find out what inspired his work to create this company and what he thinks can inspire other sustainability practitioners.

Q1 - Why did you decide to launch Net Balance?

Because the company I was with at the time, URS, decided to step away globally from providing assurance to sustainability reports due to litigation fears. This was, and has been, my area of passion for the past 15 years, and I needed an entity to house my interests. Besides, it presented an opportunity for a unique experiment in setting up a company – one that measures, offsets and reports its sustainability performance, has a strong focus on non-profit work and is based on a strong set of values. The experiment has been a phenomenal success so far, proving that there is indeed much room for sustainable business models.

Q2 - What are the key resources you employ in the conduct of your work (an example of some that I have listed for readers is located here)?

Editor’s note: As a time management guru, Terence typed up his reply to my questions while in the air between Sydney and Melbourne so he lacked the capacity to check the list of resources I provided in a recent post.

Jud, again, as I’m in the middle of the air, I can’t see your list, but my key resource (and to an extent the only resource) is my brain. I find that one of the fundamental issues (even with sustainability) is that we do not use our brains as much as we could. Lazy brains lead to lazy people and a lazy planet – I’m not saying that my brain is not lazy – it is, and it does try very hard to coast, but I keep challenging the possibilities!

Editor’s note: Wow. Insights like this are exactly why I started this blog. That was not what I was getting at with my question but it provides a great wake up call. What is your first point of call when you have a hard decision to make or a complex problem to solve? Do you make a conscious effort to extend yourself and make the most of your own mind? Consider the sheer volume of information you can access. It quickly becomes clear that it is your discerning mind that will actually make sense of it all and turn it into a useful resource. Thanks Terence, excellent point.

Q3 - What inspires you to work in the field of sustainability?

The possibility that we may leave this planet to our kids just the way we found it.  When I was a child (which by the way was not that long ago!), there was very little waste, very little pollution and much more time in the day. I would like to give the place back the way I found it – and the reason my work continues to get me out of bed very early every morning is that it has the potential to change large institutions and create much more change than I could ever achieve on my own.

Q4 - What are some examples of work you have been involved in that you think may be inspirational to other sustainability practitioners?

Two things.  Most companies that I have worked with have improved their performance each year and have gone from strength to strength.  This makes me proud.  Secondly, I’m proud of what Net Balance has done as a company – ticked most boxes in a sustainability journey from day one.  Hopefully, it will inspire other sustainability and engineering companies to practice what they believe is good for business and reap the rewards.

Editor’s note: The impressive list of clients that Net Balance has managed to support along their sustainability journey can be found here. Some high profile clients include Fosters Group, Bunnings Warehouse and BHP Billiton.

The next sustainability practitioner to be profiled will be freelance writer Leon Gettler of Fairfax, G Magazine and Sox First fame. Do you have anyone you would recommend I try to profile on this blog? If so please feel free to add a comment below.