Cutting through cynicism: Why are community-level environmental campaigns so effective?

The debate around individual choices versus action from nations and big businesses has been ongoing in the environmental space for decades. But, increasingly, campaigns that are somewhere in the middle, at community level, are leading the way when it comes to getting results.

Cutting through cynicism: Why are community-level environmental campaigns so effective?

A quick Google search of the term ‘individual action on the environment’ yields thousands of studies and opinion pieces with contradictory conclusions. “Individuals Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis”, one piece in the Guardian states, while another, hosted by the Sierra Club, states that “Yes, Actually, Individual Responsibility is Essential”.

Both sides clearly have their limitations. On the individual piece, will my choice to drive an electric vehicle (EV) represent even 0.1% of the impact of the UK’s ban on new petrol and diesel car sales? And, on the systems change piece, the simple fact is that action is not happening quickly enough, despite increased talk. The world is still set to breach the Paris Agreement, despite new commitments at Biden’s Earth Day Summit, and the sixth mass extinction is still imminent.

Community-level action offers an antidote to both limitations. Impact is more easily scaled than working alone and, many times, groups can be more nimble than national governments and big businesses, forcing them to kick things up a gear.

As Patagonia’s environmental action and initiatives director for EMEA, Beth Thoren, puts it: “While we will need governments and businesses to make huge, systemic changes in order to give us a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, thankfully, the collective power of individuals can make an incredible difference.”

We The Power

Patagonia may be best known for its outdoor wear and camping gear, but its history of environmental activism is probably a close second.

This year, following successful campaigns on renewable, community-owned energy projects in the US and EU, Patagonia began supporting UK residents to follow suit. Its ‘We The Power’ campaign outlines the potential benefits of community renewable energy projects to the general public and directs them to both get involved with existing and upcoming local projects, while supporting the Local Electricity Bill. Drafted by Power For People, the Bill is designed to ensure that Ofgem creates a Right to Local Supply framework. Such a framework would help array developers with setup and running costs.


Image: Joppe Rog/Patagonia

Thoren tells edie that the campaign reflects Patagonia’s overarching “solutions-based” approach to environmental action, which has proven successful at engaging people “regardless of political leanings, age, vocation, financial standing or current knowledge”.

“As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said, the cure for depression is action,” she continues. “Feeling that we can take an active role in saving our home planet is extremely empowering…. and of course, the beauty of community energy is that every individual contributes, has a voice and benefits from this community-level approach.”

Aside from the campaign’s initial research and YouTube documentary, it will see Patagonia continuing to flag existing community energy companies through its Patagonia Action Works online hub. This site contains information on how to join or how to support in other ways, such as petitioning and donating. Patagonia ‘walks the talk’ here with its own 1% For The Planet commitment.

While the UK has made strong progress in decarbonising its electricity mix – and has some lofty goals for 2030 and beyond – the launch of We the Power in the UK comes at a crucial moment for community energy. MPs are concerned that current and proposed policies support only large-scale, privately owned project, undermining the potential of smaller and community-owned arrays. A letter from the Environmental Audit Committee last week called on ministers to remove regulatory barriers that “appear to be stalling any further significant roll-out of community energy projects”, including high grid connection fees and the lack of a minimum export price.

Plastic Free Communities

This idea of timing maximising the effectiveness of a community campaign is shared by Canary Wharf Group’s (CWG) director of sustainability Martin Gettings, who played a key role in getting the estate certified by Surfers Against Sewage as a Plastic Free Community. More than 730 UK locations now bear the certification but CWG was the world’s first commercial centre to achieve the accolade.

“Bringing people together is the common theme of all of our best campaigns, but the timing also has to be right, the moment has to be there,” Gettings tells edie.

“If people are hungry for change, launching shows that you are aware and ready to support. Listen and watch to make sure you pick something that resonates with the communities you’re engaging.”

When CWG announced the achievement in the summer of 2019, the so-called ‘Blue Planet 2’ effect was, of course, still in full swing. The process of engaging with the companies using CWG’s office buildings, shops, cafes, bars and restaurants in the first instance, to help them eliminate all single-use plastics where possible, was carried out in even closer proximity to the culture-changing documentary.



But Gettings maintains that, despite decreased footfall during lockdown, appetite for participation remains strong among the Wharf’s communities of businesses, commuters and visitors. The estate has maintained its plastic-free status and Gettings believes that, as the next ‘new normal’ emerges, there will always be a demand for “visible, noisy and participative” campaigns that are “relatable and scalable”.

Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) own chief executive, Hugo Tagholm, believes that the lifestyle changes brought about by lockdown are likely to make people more community-minded and keener to connect collaboratively. Dozens of new locations have received Plastic Free Communities certification since last March and the charity has also been busy scaling up its beach clean offering, with a ‘Million Mile Beach Clean’ kicking off on 15 May.

Tagholm tells edie: “I think social contact and cohesion is something we’ve all been missing the most during the pandemic. By its very nature, Plastic Free Communities is about bringing people together; about solidarity, support and taking action collectively.”

Dialling in for a video call from Cornwall, he goes on to describe Covid-19 as a “jolt” that has “made people think somewhat differently”, recognising that environmental issues, social issues, public health and the economy are all interconnected.

For Tagholm, the benefit of community-level engagement – beyond the immediate social gains for those participating, and the overarching environmental impact – is the power that these voices have to affect change at a higher level.

“The government keeps responding, and businesses keep responding, to the movement of people; we saw it in 2017-18 with plastics and we’re seeing it now with climate,” he says.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric [i.e. new targets], so it’s important that communities re-double their efforts and say ‘we don’t just want to hear your targets, we want to see the action, faster.’”  

Indeed, the UK’s ban on single-use plastic items like straws, came after campaigns from groups including SAS.

While the environmental narrative in the UK is now skewed more towards climate than plastics, especially with Covid-19 complicating the picture, Gettings and Tagholm both believe that community campaigns can form an important part of the solution to any global environmental issue. The ability of communities to act more rapidly than their nations on climate can be seen in the dozens of local authorities to have declared climate emergencies and developed pre-2050 net-zero targets, from Edinburgh to Exeter

“We’ve got to see this whole decade as one for community movements,” Tagholm concludes.

Sarah George

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