I recently gave this interview to 2degrees. 2degrees is an online community of over 25,000 sustainability professionals.
What’s your role?
I work in the Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility team at Fishburn Hedges, which I co-head with my colleague Pete Chalkley. We provide strategic communications counsel to businesses on big picture issues such as water, food, and energy security and help them to harness social media alongside a broad range of channels to engage consumers and senior stakeholders. With sustainability challenges increasingly demanding an integrated approach, I have to work across agendas, from climate change and public health to corporate tax, and across disciplines, from media relations, and policy to corporate reporting.
What got you interested in sustainability in the first place?
I got interested in sustainability before I knew it was called “sustainability”. I was fascinated by the power of organizations to effect positive social change. My first experience was working as a consultant for Unity, running high profile social justice campaigns on homelessness for Crisis and climate change for NGOs such as WWF and Friends of the Earth. The one that had a particularly personal resonance focused on raising awareness of male suicide, the biggest killer of young men in the UK. As an impassioned 23 year-old I managed to somehow persuade the Home Office to give their support for the UK’s first Johnny Cash-style prison gig at HM Pentonville Prison, to promote “Wasted Youth”, a campaign founded by a journalist friend in memory of his brother.
However, it was the economic crisis that made me first realize that the various social and environmental issues on which I’d been campaigning were actually symptoms of the same thing: an inequitable, unsustainable society – and one in which businesses had a powerful opportunity to be part of the solution.
What are some of the key projects you’re currently working on?
I’m currently working closely with one of the world’s biggest food companies, helping them to lead global debate about the water crisis and its impact on food security.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in your line of work?
The biggest challenge is innovation risk – overcoming the perception that change is somehow riskier than more of the same. Yet today’s economy favors those who experiment, who ‘move fast and break things’ (as the Facebook motto goes). Businesses can’t afford to stay still and sustainability pressures, properly understood, can be the engine of enterprise and opportunity.
Moving past challenges, what is it that you love most about your job?
- First, working with a bunch of people who are not only exceptionally talented but also great fun and share the same outlook;
- Second, having the privilege to work with on issues I feel genuinely passionate about, alongside others who do too;
- Finally, working with clients brave and bold enough to try out new approaches.
What do you consider your most significant achievement in sustainability?
Last November we worked together with Sainsbury’s to roadtest a new model for crowdsourcing sustainability strategies dealing with everything from engaging customers to strengthening supply chains and communities. Over 200 FTSE companies participated, including Tesco and M&S – Sainsbury’s direct competitors. The quality of the response was genuinely impressive, and perhaps marks the beginning of a new era of open business when it comes to tackling shared challenges.
Channeling from your experiences, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
Enlightened self-interest is a powerful and positive thing. A sustainability campaign built on altruism alone is akin to a house built on sand – liable to change with the tide of public opinion. Give people a stake in the solution, while appealing to vested interests as well as personal values, and they’re more likely to stick with you.
How do you see your sector developing in the coming years?
We are starting to see convergence on sustainability challenges. Till now there has been a battle of the silos: climate change, poverty, famine, obesity etc. But increasingly the dots are being joined. For businesses this is giving rise to a more rounded relationship with society: one that encourages companies to consider issues ‘new’ to sustainability, things like tax, support of local suppliers, employee wellbeing, and talent pipelines as well as more established ones around carbon, energy and material resources. As this becomes more mainstream, sustainability will become a point of competitive advantage, not merely about risk management. This is the impetus behind a new type of sustainability movement – designed around creating real value rather than merely being ‘less bad’.
What would you change about sustainability in business today?
Businesses in the main are actually ahead of the curve on sustainability. If I could change one thing it would be for the Government, in particular the Chancellor, to catch up and realize that green equals growth. One third of last year’s economic growth came from green business, according to the CBI, and by 2014 – when the economy is expected to have recovered to pre-Crash levels – the green economy will have grown by 40%.
Finally, what’s your favorite motto?
“When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.”