Where did the idea behind Global Action Plan originate?
It started in the US. David Gershon returned from the 1992 Rio Summit inspired and he set up an Earth Run across the US – a baton relay race where people each wrote an environmental pledge on the baton and then they passed it on. When it got to the end line at the White House it had a huge list of pledges with a call to action from the government. David tried to get traditional pressure groups involved, but they said that it wasn’t for them because they are more involved in lobbying governments. So, he felt there was a need to create something to engage people.
And how did you get involved?
I was director of fundraising at Friends of the Earth. I have enormous respect for them, but I’m much more practical and like to see things happen. At that time, Friends of the Earth was much more focused on lobbying and criticising and seeking to change things that way.
I couldn’t continue to fundraise for the organisation because it didn’t go with my beliefs. I saw David’s ideas and decided to set up the organisation here in the UK.
So is it a truly global operation?
We have offices in 17 countries. That sounds very grand, but the Finland office, for example, consists of just one person and a dog. It’s a loose federation, so each country’s Global Action Plan is independent, but representatives from each one come together twice a year to talk about common projects, to submit funding applications and to share experiences – which tend to be fairly similar.
So, you’re a charity reliant on corporate funding?
Yes. Last year, we were about 50% government-funded and 50% company funded. But this year, with the austerity programmes and change of emphasis in government, it’s more likely to be 80% corporate funded.
There is an increasing disconnection between businesses that are talking about sustainability and really understanding the connection between environmental, social and financial and the Government, which is actually moving away from the sustainability agenda. It removed the Sustainable Development Commission and sustainability isn’t even mentioned in Defra’s new strategy, which shows there has been a real shift between the two sectors.
And with that a lack of business support, I guess there is a gap for the likes of Global Action Plan to fill.
Yes, [the funding for] agencies that were in place to help businesses – Envirowise, Business Link, the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust, etc – are disappearing so there is a growing need.
What about your funding from the EU? Is it safe?
Strategically, there’s still quite a lot of resource in the EU and unlike the UK government, it seems to really recognise the importance of engaging with small businesses and is providing some support. Again, there is some disconnection between where the EU is heading and where the UK is heading.
So, how important is getting a global deal on climate change? It seems to have come down the pecking order of priorities.
Businesses are starting to move away from conversations about carbon and are looking more at resource availability. I was with a major retailer the other day and they said the pressing issue for them is water. They get their cut flowers from a region that is water stressed, and are starting to question whether they have any right to take the water resource that is essential to the local population. The desire to act is growing based on more business resilience needs. It is depressing that we haven’t got a global deal, but it’s not such a massive deal.
What is driving the work you are doing within business?
Businesses tend to come with a problem and we, hopefully, provide a solution. It’s about how businesses get the sustainability message through to their employees and make it business-relevant.
What patterns have emerged?
Senior managers go on about carbon footprinting, which is not in everybody’s daily language. So there’s a need to build confidence to talk a language that people understand. There is the Jeremy Clarkson scepticism – that it’s a load of baloney. And getting through that is really important. But it’s about making it relevant to people’s jobs and building it into the culture of the company. You might find competitiveness is quite a good way through; who is the greenest driver in the business. It’s about playing into that culture and getting the message across in different ways.
How do you deal with the Jeremy Clarksons?
It depends where they sit in the organisation. A “Jeremy Clarkson” in facilities is a nightmare.
How do you gauge your success when working within companies?
We measure our success in environmental savings and the number of people engaged. We also do cultural attitudinal surveys and spot checks on behaviour. So, there’s lots of measurement; it’s what the businesses expect.
What can you do for these businesses that they can’t do themselves?
We are a charity and in a business setting it’s an interesting dynamic. It isn’t a manager saying, ‘do this, do that’. And we’re not a consultancy. So they know we’re coming in because of an environmental concern. That gives us an authenticity which others may not have. We can provide a continuity of solutions which a consultancy couldn’t or a business couldn’t.
You also work with SMEs.
That’s how we get EU funding. We now have a team of six SME business advisers. It’s a free support service for SMEs. As part of our EU links, we run EMAS Easy, which is specifically for small businesses and it’s a very simplified process for them to get to ISO 14001.
What’s the take-up been like?
Really slow. There’s this mythology about the supply chain that big business is driving sustainability down. But for most big businesses, their suppliers are enormous. And we’re dealing with SMEs, with less then 250 employees. It just doesn’t get that far. But if you can get SMEs engaged, they change so quickly because there is less bureaucracy.
So, how can big business drive the message down through to the SMEs?
I think it’s a long way off because most big businesses are still struggling with their tier 1 suppliers. The aspirations of the purchaser is not always reflected, even in the tier one suppliers.
One could argue that staff engagement is just touching the edges and what is really required is mass investment in clean technology. Do you agree?
You can have brilliant technology, but if the people don’t use that technology properly, you invariably don’t get the savings that you should. And what happens if somebody saves lots of money on their energy bills and then buys a flight to wherever. They are still using the carbon, but in a different way. You have to have the behavioural change part of the piece otherwise it doesn’t mesh.
How much of your work is aiding that unlocking of investment?
That’s really hard to say. But we’re getting people thinking differently. For instance, we do a programme called Eco Teams for one of the companies we work with, which is about getting people to think about changes at home. We trained somebody to do that and, as an unintended consequence, that person was the lead in the legal department at a large company. They went back and shifted the procurement policies of the business so that it included sustainability as one of the prerequisites in all contracts.
The companies you have worked with seem to be the leading players. But how can you reach all the others out there?
That’s increasingly difficult. As the austerity measures bite, there are certain companies which are leading and doing more and more. And there’s a whole lot who perhaps dabbled with it two or three years ago, then retrenched and haven’t got back on board.
There is more scepticism about climate change in boardrooms and that laggard group is quite strongly embedded at the moment.
Will we ever get consumers on board? And does it even matter?
The CBI identified it as an economic blocker -that people just aren’t making the connections between carbon and energy efficiency.Different conversations are happening. CEOs are talking about carbon and carbon footprinting. And their customers aren’t. So the challenge that came out of that CBI report was how do make that language real to that group.
What’s the one thing you’re most proud of in your time at Global Action Plan?
What always pleases, and slightly surprises me, is that we have always tended to be ahead of the curve on a lot of stuff. We were the first organisation to have an online carbon tool, back in 1998, for example.
What do you hope to achieve with Global Action Plan?
I’ve got no idea. I’m not a great planner. What I want to see happen is for the UK to have a sustainable economy, which is an economy which hits the science-identified carbon targets and gives as many people as possible as aspirational a life as they can lead.
Are you optimistic?
Ultimately, yes. People have a great ability to change very quickly and are inherently innovative. We will get there, the problem is we should have been planning for this 10-15 years ago. What we’ll probably do is respond incredibly late when it gets a bit desperate.