At Environmental Graffiti we like to remember our roots. We may cover topics as diverse as the Lumberjacks of the 19th Century and Mindblowing Cooling Tower Graffiti, but if there’s one idea that underlies all the weird and wonderful stories we love to bring you, it’s the environment. And people at the vanguard of the environmental movement don’t come much more esteemed in our eyes than Trewin Restorick, founder and CEO of independent environmental charity Global Action Plan.
Global Action Plan is an award-winning charity that runs programmes with businesses, schools, community organisations and households to reduce carbon emissions, energy consumption and waste. A frequent commentator on environmental issues who you might recognise appearing on anything from BBC Breakfast to CNN, Trewin took the time to answer some of our questions on subjects ranging from student activism to wormeries. Yet there are some serious messages here for us all as we move towards a low carbon future.
1. For 20 years, you have appeared at the forefront of the environmental movement as an entrepreneur and social leader. What initially inspired you to dedicate your life and career to the environment?
Having shambled my way through a history degree at university I headed back to my home town of Plymouth uncertain exactly what to do. The city provided an unexpected answer. The largest employer was a huge naval dockyard which was being drastically cut. Thousands of highly skilled people were facing a bleak future and I was one of those given the task of trying to create a new local economy using their expertise.
For many facing redundancy, the answer was to use their skills to renovate products creating a value from things that had been discarded. These ranged from obvious stuff such as furniture through to renovating majestic old wooden boats that had been left to rot in local rivers.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the work was bringing together the two strands of the environment and the economy. I loved the job and it motivated me to go and work at Friends of the Earth, which at the time was a joyfully chaotic and anarchic bundle of energy and ideas. From then on I was hooked, and in 1993 set up Global Action Plan.
2. From an early age you became involved in recycling projects and student activism. What role do you believe young people play in the environmental movement? What responsibilities are unique to the younger generations when tackling global climate issues?
This is definitely one of my hobby horses – you really don’t want to
get stuck near me at a party! All the time I see politicians and business leaders my age making decisions which will have a huge impact on the quality of life and opportunities for the next generation. Investment decisions being made now on our energy infrastructure, our transport networks, how we use our land and on food and fishing will have long-term consequences on whether we can hit carbon targets.
I think it is crucially important that we help young people see how important these decisions are and to get actively involved in shaping their future. There are some signs for optimism. Through our Climate Squad project I see a level of ideas, innovation, understanding and collaboration that puts older generations to shame. On the downside, fighting through the mass of bureaucracy, systems and rigidity that our society has created is highly dispiriting.
3. Incorporating environmental awareness into school curricula is an important part of your life’s work. If this happens, do you foresee the next generation being far more socially conscious than previous generations? Will it be too late?
I think environmental issues are a brilliant way to bring creativity and high quality learning into schools. We have always sought to enable students to understand the challenges they face either by being carbon detectives within the school or literally going through their own bins. Having understood the problem, we help them work together to develop their own solutions and communication campaigns. The results are constantly impressive – far higher than government targets. Hopefully the skills they gain will help them adapt and flourish in a very different economy.
I have a basic belief that somehow people will survive even the very worst impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. The more important questions are how painful will the process of change be and what quality of life will people have? The quicker we start cutting carbon the easier the transition will be.
4. Global Action Plan aims to partner with businesses, schools and community organisations. How do you find these alliances strengthen an environmental charity? How can grassroots activity contribute to environmentalism?
I know that this is not a view that is necessarily shared by other environmental organisations, but our view is that the scale of the challenge we face is so large that you have to create collaborative and often unusual partnerships to deliver change at the speed and size required.
The challenge is to create partnerships that have credibility, are robust and enable organisations to maximize their relative strengths. For instance, without Sky’s support we would not have been able to create our Appetite for Action programme which helps students make the connection between food and the environment. Over 1,800 schools have now participated in the initiative and have looked at ways they can grow their own food, reduce food waste and cut packaging. For me this is a good example of how a partnership with a large company has unleashed grassroots activity.
5. EcoTeams, Climate Squad and Action at School are all programmes of Global Action Plan that work on local levels to reduce environmental impact. Can you describe these programmes and why they are effective?
Imagine a congregation in a cold and chilly church on a Sunday morning. The organist starts – there is a moment of silence and then a few brave souls start singing loudly and probably off-key. This hesitant beginning gives the majority of the congregation the permission and confidence to join in and the singing starts. There will always be a few at the back who mime their way through the whole thing.
We believe this is how change happens in communities. Wherever we work, be it at a school, a business, with a community group or in a neighbourhood, we try to find the singers and give them the knowledge, confidence and ability to encourage change within their community. We want everyone to feel they can get involved.
This basic model of behaviour change has been refined and improved to make it relevant to a wide range of audiences and has been independently assessed by academics who have verified its effectiveness. We run the only environmental projects in the UK to be supported by the United Nations Environment Programme.
6. Global Action Plan angles itself as providing easy-to-follow actions. What makes the programmes so easy-to-follow? It is important for everyone to feel that they can contribute to actions against climate change. How can everyone participate through GAP?
The environmental world can get overwhelmed in doom, gloom and despondency which is not exactly motivational. The tone of messaging can also be a bit ‘you should’ which can cause resentment or guilt. We try to overcome this with a variety of different approaches.
Crucially we try to present the scientific facts and highlight areas of risk and uncertainty, allowing people to reach their own decisions based upon how they interpret the information, their own values and their circumstances.
Wherever possible we try to create groups as we have learned that people like to discuss issues and are more likely to make long-term change when they have had a chance to explore and test their decisions with people they trust.
We keep communication light and interesting which is why we have created a range of interactive displays, pub quizzes and games. We think that tracking progress is motivational because people can see the impact of collective action. Finally, we try to provide a structure for people to work within so that they know what their role is and what they can achieve.
7. If you had to choose only one, what would you consider the single most important change an individual can make in his life to save the environment?
This is impossible to answer because peoples’ circumstances vary so enormously and I think it is patronizing for one person to tell others what changes they should make. For example, if you don’t own your home then you can’t insulate it. If you live in a rural area or have a disabled member of the family you need your car. If you face financial constraints then you have limited money to invest.
What I can do is highlight the changes that I have made to my lifestyle which have made me happier, have often saved money and have reduced environmental impact. On a daily basis I cycle into work which saves me around £70 a month on tube fares. I have a wormery which I find perversely rewarding as you can see first-hand the natural cycle of food waste turning into compost. I have a tiny garden but have invested in some vegetable boxes growing courgettes, tomatoes, spinach and rocket. I have a smart meter which provides another brilliant excuse for not ironing and I am gradually (and a little reluctantly) moving to a diet with virtually no meat.
Ultimately, everyone can make a difference, but perhaps not all in the same way; we all need to make the changes that suit our lifestyles.
8. Though you recognise that local authorities face challenges in implementing environmentally-friendly legislation, what steps do you believe they can feasibly take next to create a greener world?
These are obviously fairly torrid times for local authorities due to financial constraints, but as Hilary Clinton said, “never waste a good crisis”, and I think that local authorities could use the requirement as a catalyst to make strategic changes. They can save money and create new and greener ways of working.
At a most basic level, local authorities should look closely at the way they use resources. For example, our Operation Blackout project found that despite ever-increasing energy prices, most local authority offices are still lit up like Christmas trees through the night.
Local authorities should implement green IT strategies as there are huge cost and environmental savings to be made in delivering services differently. Local authorities should also be seen as beacons of sustainability within their community, truly ‘walking the talk’ by encouraging their suppliers to operate to higher environmental standards, by supporting local businesses and communities, by educating their employees, and by putting in place iconic and visible indicators of sustainability in action.
9. On a broader scale, you have been trained as one of Al Gore’s UK Climate Change Ambassadors. What do you feel the role is of big-name politicians in the environmental movement, and which figures – celebrities, scientists, etc. – do you think can have the most powerful voice?
Leaders in our society, be they politicians, CEOs, Head Teachers or Community Leaders, have a central role to play in a transition to a low carbon economy. Crucially they must demonstrate consistency across their decision-making. For example, I have met a huge number of people who said that New Labour couldn’t really, truly believe that Climate Change was a threat – despite their fine words on the subject – because they had given the go-ahead for the expansion of Heathrow.
In companies, many well-intentioned green travel schemes have quickly hit the buffers when the CEO has refused to give up his Bentley and the senior execs fly everywhere.
Scientists also need to up their game. The recent controversies around the UEA emails and the small number of errors in the IPCC reports have been massively damaging. The scientific community needs to be more open and transparent. It must communicate better and be more proactive in the way it deals with media.
Celebrities might have a role but I am more dubious about this as there have been many examples of shocking Green Wash as a celebrity says one thing and does another. Madonna urging people to clap their hands to save the world still makes my stomach turn.
What we do need are credible role models to which people can aspire and there are precious few of those around – although I met the yacht woman Ellen MacArthur, a few weeks ago, and she is phenomenally inspirational.
10. There is a perception that environmentally-focused and sustainable companies cannot be profitable. Yet, the recycling company you created, Paper Round, has a £3 million turnover. How must business practices be altered to be both lucrative and environmentally ethical? How can an ethical, environmentally-driven business contribute to the movement?
There are a growing number of examples demonstrating that businesses that have solid environmental policies can also be profitable businesses. I can only see this trend increasing. Forward-thinking CEOs are recognizing that resource costs will grow well above inflation, they are increasingly concerned about the availability of resources, they know that to attract the top talent they must have solid environmental credentials, they can see that legislation will drive change, and they also know that they must have adaptation strategies in place to cope with a changing climate.
I think that there is also a growing amount of scope for fleet-footed green entrepreneurs who can create businesses that are disruptive and successful. New technology is moving at a rapid pace, the scale of change we have to achieve is unprecedented, and new collaborations and partnerships are required. All of these provide a rich playground for people who have the imagination, desire and ability to create new sustainable businesses.
Personally, I think that these green business solutions will be the way that we hit carbon targets, rather than lumbering governments or even the environmental pressure groups, which seem to be wandering in the wilderness at the moment.
11. You have quite an impressive green resume. What’s next? How will your goals ultimately contribute to a more sustainable planet?
I am not a great planner and have a fairly simple life view. I want to do a job that is stimulating and that can make the biggest difference possible in a drive towards a more sustainable world (reading this back it makes me look like a Miss World contestant and is cheesier than a barrel of brie!).
At the moment Global Action Plan fulfills these requirements. Over the next few years I want to create a community initiative that transforms the way we live and work together, demonstrating that sustainability can work financially, can create stronger, more coherent communities, and can achieve massive environmental benefits. I want to build some projects that change the way we use technology in order to benefit the environment.
Finally, I want Global Action Plan to be a hub around which people who want to achieve real practical change can gather, and where they will find a supportive, motivated and enjoyable network.