As part of our Great Campaigners series, Dan Smith caught up with Trewin Restorick, CEO of Hubbub, the UK’s leading sustainability campaigning organisation to discuss the state of play on sustainability and how the business world is currently responding to some of society’s most fundamental challenges.
Trewin co-founded Hubbub in 2014, and his now 30-strong team work with the private and public sectors to build campaigns which positively encourage people to live more sustainably. In recent times, they’ve led the way on delivering the latte levy and coffee cup recycling, launched the UK’s first ever plastic fishing boat, created ‘ballot bins’ to reduce cigarette litter across the world and awoken the UK to the need to improve the quality of our air.
Before Hubbub, Trewin founded and led Global Action Plan. He’s been at the forefront of the UK’s campaigning scene for more than two decades.
DS: It feels like we’ve reached a tipping point of public opinion on a number of environmental and sustainability issues in the last 12 months. What’s your take?
TR: Yes, although tipping points only come from years of work to get us there. The IPCC report which highlighted that we have 12 years to prevent runaway climate change; national treasure, David Attenborough, talking about plastics; and growing debates on biodiversity and a loss of species have combined and merged to really capture people’s attention. They’ve provided a strong foundation for the recent climate strikes in schools, and campaigning by Extinction Rebellion to cut through, forcing politicians to recognise that we do indeed face a climate emergency. So, yes, there’s definitely been a sea-change in the way people talk about the environment and their concern about it.
DS: And how’s that translating through to business behaviour?
TR: A lot of businesses were doing things quietly, and others reluctantly. What’s happened is that a lot of businesses have been taken by surprise, particularly on plastics. It’s been impossible to ignore how loud the public conversation has been, and the volume of questions which have come their way. They’ve had to respond very fast, and they’ve realised they need to act for their customers but also for their employees, from a talent recruitment perspective. The interesting thing now is that while many businesses have implemented measures to phase out single use plastics, they now face decisions about whether they move on to deal with some of the tougher issues, such as climate.
DS: Those harder things obviously require a great deal of collaboration from businesses and civil society as a whole. How upbeat are you about our collective ability to deliver what is needed, and meet the tight deadlines outlined in the IPCC report?
TR: I think there’s a growing realisation that collaboration has to be the way forward. Traditionally, businesses haven’t been very good at that. I think there always needs to be a catalyst and facilitator to make collaboration happen and there aren’t many people operating in that space. But the more fundamental question is about core business models. Take the fashion industry as an example. It’s set up to sell you as many clothes as fast as possible, in a linear manner. They sell it to you and then it’s dumped. If we’re going to meet these targets, then we need to rapidly move to a more circular model and use resources for much longer. How you derive a business model which makes profit on those terms – that’s the real challenge.
DS: We’re talking about businesses moving from these issues being a reputational concern to an operational one…
Exactly. It’s definitely in the reputational space at the moment. But the things that are setting alarm bells rings in the businesses are questions like: where are we going to get the resources we need? What’s going to happen to our water supply? What’s going to happen along our supply chain during extreme weather events? They all go to the heart of the issue of what a business model needs to look like in a very different world.
DS: Who do you think the progressive players are in the business world? Who impresses you?
TR: In terms of the circular economy, there’s actually very few who have grasped the challenge and tackled it head on. There are pockets of activity on circularity, but it’s very piecemeal. Companies are testing the water and creating a narrative around that. IKEA is a good example. They’re starting to test new ways of operating. But no one is really doing it at scale. Of course, there’s so much other uncertainty around that is hitting business models of all kinds that the corporate world is trying to do two things – retract and retain their core while trialling new ways of operating. But it’s difficult to change whilst you’re fighting off a disruptor.
DS: Do you think government and regulators are doing enough? Are we getting the regulatory picture correct to deliver the necessary change?
TR: Government has been way out of the picture for a long time. But they’re suddenly realising there may be votes in this. Change is therefore happening. The overall approach is that Government is trying not to intervene too much so they’re picking on the bits which are relatively easy to do. Plastic is actually relatively easy to do because you can implement policies such as banning certain forms of single use plastics such as straws. Whether the long-term environmental impact of current measures will be positive is debatable. What Government really needs to do is look at core issues around resource use and climate – you can’t duck issues like do we have a Heathrow expansion and the future of fracking forever. There’s no real public dialogue on whether we should be taxing carbon and resources at source more heavily. Those issues are the real policy drivers which will get businesses to radically rethink their approach. From what I can tell, Government is not brave enough to do that.
DS: Away from the here and now, what’s the most impressive environmental or sustainability campaign you’ve been a part of or seen?
TR: Hubbub operates in the space where consumers and citizens meet corporates. From that perspective, the most impressive thing I’ve seen up close is the Lagom strategy that IKEA implemented in the UK. The reason being it was a three-year commitment from the business, its impact was independently measured by the University of Surrey, it was based on huge amounts of consumer insight and customer engagement, they were very transparent about what they were doing, it was a big change in culture for IKEA whereby they put a lot more trust in their consumers than they had to previously, and the circular thinking behind it is starting to get traction at a policy level. It’s been fascinating to work on.
DS: Campaigners have always had to go through the process of agitating from the fringes to win enough support or votes to make their issue mainstream. It does feel like the entire sustainability debate is in a better place from that perspective. But if you were somehow given control of the entire sustainability campaigning world, what would you focus it on for the next decade? What are the next big battles that need to be won to keep momentum?
TR: I think it’s the fundamentals of life. I know that sounds stupid. But we need to make it about the air we breathe, the soil, the water. We are in a place environmentally where all of them are being degraded. We all depend on those things – we always will. That’s where real effort needs to be made, on our core ecosystems. The marine environment is getting most attention because of plastics, but we’re yet to really have a public debate about the soil and maintaining the ecosystems we have from that perspective. The air pollution issues we face are horrific. People will get that – if the air people breathe is toxic then everyone will instinctively know something is wrong. If we can use these fundamentals as the emotive force which can drive change on things like our use of fossil fuels, the use of renewable energy, and creating a sustainable energy system then that’s exactly what we should be doing from a campaigning perspective.
DS: Final question – if I could somehow magic all the CEOs in the world into a conference hall and give you a platform for half-an-hour, what would you major on in that speech?
TR: I think I’d focus on the imperative that for their own and society’s sake, they need to change their business models away from carbon intensive to carbon zero and that although that will require a fundamental rethink of everything they do it’s a challenge that we all have to embrace.
DS: We should probably leave it at the need for a fundamental rethink – Trewin, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.