Environment takes the lead in innovation challenge

The growing business trend towards protecting the environment was apparent this week as one of London's most venerable think tanks announced the winners of their Coffeehouse Challenge.

Eco efforts had clearly paid off as three of the six winners chosen by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and Starbucks Coffee Company were projects that focussed on reducing carbon emissions, improving environmental standards and generally working to protect our planet.

These included Carbon Neutral West of England from Bristol, the RSA Investors in Environment Award scheme, spawned from Investors in People, and a project called Street Cred in Essex.

Announced as part of the RSA’s Day of Inspiration, all the issues up for discussion were linked to the organisation’s new manifesto for the 21st Century, with hot topics including: encouraging enterprise, moving towards a zero-waste society, fostering resilient communities, developing a capable population, and advancing global citizenship.

One of the most original ideas amongst the winners was Chelmsford’s Street Cred, which will offer school leavers credits to cover university fees in exchange for their participation in various social and environmental projects in the UK and abroad.

Founder of CSR Global and spokesman for the initiative, Dr Chris Moon told edie that the idea developed following concerns not only about sustainability issues but also the fact that high university fees put many young people off studying.

“Street Cred is meant to sound hip but the issues are very serious,” Dr Moon said. “The project is in the planning stage, but the intention is to form a charity to identify potential projects that youngsters can undertake to gain credit points for. This skills bank can then be used either to gain a reduction in fees, or demonstrate potential to employers.”

The fate of Street Cred now depended largely on national organisations such as the National Lottery to fund the scheme, which Dr Moon said would probably need millions of pounds in order to be really successful. He was confident that it would receive a lot of interest though, due to the far-reaching benefits it would have around the world.

“Following our coffee house discussions, I was determined that we came up with a practical project that really tackled important issues. I think that many youngsters would want to get involved, and would then be genuinely switched on to social and environmental issues by their involvement,” he said.

The RSA’s enthusiasm to champion a zero-waste society was a big inspiration for another winner, the Carbon Neutral West of England initiative, according to project host and RSA Fellow John Pontin.

“We are currently putting a strategic framework into place to deal with environmental issues and add real value to others also working towards zero waste and sustainability,” Mr Pontin told edie.

The Bristol-based initiative has already implemented and begun to expand business car clubs, and Mr Pontin said they were now taking the concept of zero waste to more rural communities, teaching them of simple ways to reduce and offset the greenhouse gas emissions that they produce.

He said the key was to offer consumers a “menu” of solutions that could be easily implemented to “repair” environmental damage from carbon emissions before it occurred.

“This is an urgent matter, but we can make a difference and have fun while we are doing so,” he said. “We may not be able to tell George Bush what to do, but we can take action ourselves, and the more people that get involved, the bigger the difference.”

Everyone involved with the project hoped that the enthusiasm would spread to other parts of the UK, if not the world, according to Mr Pontin, who called the Carbon Neutral West of England project a “global movement in the making”.

Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees spoke prior to the award announcement at the RSA’s Day of Inspiration, reinforcing the global need to embrace clean alternatives to power such as biofuels and renewable energy. He said that, as well as minimising environmental risks, public awareness also needed to increase.

“Pioneering technology always brings risks,” Sir Rees said. “But where these risks were previously localised, they can now have effects on a national or global scale from just one error, and we must minimise this.”

He added that the last 1,000 years had changed our planet more drastically than any other such period, but the next 100 years would be vital to determining the future, and as to whether our bio-sphere would be able to stabilise.

The RSA challenge was launched 250 years after the organisation’s founder, William Shipley, held its first meeting in a coffee house in Covent Garden.

“The Coffeehouse Challenge has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations, producing over 50 innovative but practical solutions to local problems,” RSA executive director Penny Egan stated.

By Jane Kettle

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