My guest today is Solitaire Townsend.
She's an author, a sustainability expert, and an optimist, and that's always a good thing. She's been named Sustainability Leader of 2023 by Adweek, she advises businesses on sustainability, and her recent book is The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix the Future.
Solitaire, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
It's lovely to be here.
Now, you've also done a TED Talk with an awful lot of views, I believe, where you explain how you are quite skeptical about your own industry, about PR and the associated advisory bodies like the accountancy profession, the legal profession, and everything else, which you describe as the grease that oils the wheels of fossil fuels. So tell me how you can be in the industry and still have that view.
Well, after several decades working in the communications industry, should we say for the good side of the force, in terms of sustainability, working on trying to change other industries, from the food industry, to the fashion industry, tech, I actually realised that we're neglecting the industry of which we're actually a part.
And much of it started when we became a founding B Corp here in the UK, and we saw a lot of other industries and agencies becoming B Corps, and it really just focused the mind on the fact that this is a huge industry, professional services is worth $2 trillion a year, trillion, dollars a year. And I don't know any large company that operates without an army of PR advisors, consultants, advertising execs, that actually smooth the way and make things happen within them. And as an industry, we are playing both sides in a very, very serious way.
So you have the same agencies, the same ad and PR agencies, working sometimes for the NGOs and the campaigners, working for some of the sustainable brands who are also working for oil and gas. And I'm afraid that option has passed, it's pick a side, pick a choice, have some values, stand up for something, and let's use all of the creativity in this industry, and it's an incredibly creative industry, full of some of the most persuasive people that we have. Let's use that for the solutions, not to continue selling the problem.
Well, in your TED Talk, you said that well over 100 agencies said that they would reveal the clients that they worked for and their involvement with fossil fuels and things like that. Now, were they as good as their word? You said some of the big ones ignored you on that.
Yeah, so we have over 170 agencies and consultancies who have agreed to do these client disclosure reports. Now, these client disclosure reports are really simple, it just is a pie chart of your revenue by industry. You don't have to name your clients, you just have to say which industry they come from, and that shows who's paying you, who's paying your bills, as industries. Now, actually, under the UN Race to Zero, I was part of helping write the new criteria for the UN Race to Zero, and actually client disclosure reports are in, they're recommended in those criteria, for PR and advertising agencies, but still, not one of the large agencies have agreed to do it. Because, of course, not only would it reveal how much revenue they take from oil and gas, but also reveal how much revenue they take from tobacco.
Yeah, right. I understand you're just back from holiday. And fortunately, you didn't experience the wildfires in the Mediterranean and presumably not the floods in Asia either, but these extremes are emphasising the urgency of our situation. Yet politicians are happy to row back and kick all the green issues around for electoral advantage, which seems to be the height of irresponsibility. But are businesses going to go the same way and say, "Oh, it's too hard," and backpedal if it is?
Very unlikely. So actually, I was on holiday in the Great British countryside, in the Cotswolds, where I went on a walking holiday and spent time in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I've done many times over.
And actually, I was really shocked walking through some of the national trails, the Cotswolds way, the lack of butterflies and insects. And of course, if you're my age and have been around for a half century, I remember when you'd be plagued by them, they'd be everywhere, and it was actually annoying way walking through the countryside, the amount of flies and butterflies, et cetera, would be around. And it was extraordinary. Spotting a butterfly on a full day, 13 mile walks was a big moment, and we'd point out to each other, me and my friends that we'd seen one. So we are in this very, very, very serious moment and the vast majority of the public are very aware of that.
And in fact, with the wildfires, with the extreme heat, with the flooding that's happened, particularly in Europe and North America and also across Asia, you've got a huge percentage of the population who have now confronted and experienced climate change. When I started out in this industry, we didn't think that was going to happen in our generation. We thought this is for our grandchildren, and now it's happening to us. Politicians tend to be quite weird in how they respond to a number of issues, climate change being one of them, in terms of batting it about. But of course, they work only in four year cycles. Businesses do not. So of all the companies I work with, most of the Fortune 500, most of the FTSE 100, at some point I've worked with, they have to plan, particularly for CapEx expenditure, sometimes 20 or 30 years ahead.
The Long View
If you're going to build a factory, that's the length of time you want it to land. If you're going to build a building, if you're going to create a new product line, you want it to last for a very long time. So you tend to find very, very, very little politicking around climate change in very large business.
As I always say, you never meet a climate sceptic in insurance, for example, they have access to the same sort of science as politicians do. What you might find is them changing how they talk about it to go with the mood of the nation or the mood of the moment.
And the other big issue that you find with a lot of businesses is they're increasing anxiety about being a victim of climate change themselves. Most large businesses have just in time supply chains where everything works on literally seconds, where things come into the shop and they're on the floor within that moment, and people don't tend to hold a great deal of stock anymore. And actually, an extreme weather event throws all of that out of the window. So you're seeing, as well as a lot of anxiety around climate change, some anxiety about how to talk about it.
Part of the Solution
You are also seeing business waking up to the fact that they should be part of the solution, that that's their job. Their job is providing solutions, is providing what we want, that's what businesses job has always been. And of course, the biggest thing that we need right now is climate solutions. So you've got a lot of businesses who are not just seeing themselves as trying to do less bad on this, how do we reduce our carbon footprint? And that's a given, that's a necessary, of course they must do that. But also trying to think about how they could do more good. Can they actually be the people who bring climate solutions to market? And that is not a moral imperative for them, that's hard-nosed capitalism. But the businesses that produce solutions to climate change over the next 10 years are most likely to be the ones that thrive.
Oil and Gas
And yet we have the oil and gas businesses lobbying the government to open up new oil fields, which will have a life, typically, of 20 to 30 years. Surely they're pushing against the trend, aren't they?
So the oil and gas majors around the world, and coal of course, lest we forget, the fossil fuel majors around the world, are a very unique and strange creature in the world that we have at the moment, which is very smart people who are very aware of climate change and see it coming, but who have convinced themselves that their industry needs to continue on the way that it has done forever, and that they need to be at the forefront of that.
Of course, they tend to be run now by quite older people, a lot of these companies are, because of course, the brightest and the best, the youngest, smartest engineers who used to go into fossil fuels because it was the most exciting and interesting engineering on the planet, are now going to the tech companies. So actually, a lot of these companies have got a terrible problem with young talent. They just don't have it. They have a lot of older talent who've been with the business for a long time and they really struggled with young talent.
But I think it's going to become increasingly challenging. Let's not talk about companies if they're a person, let's talk about the people who work there. Increasingly challenging for the people who work in those businesses to square the circle on what they're doing. And they're receiving a lot of criticism, they're being called up by name, a lot of them under a challenge publicly, and from their own kids. But of course we need them. They're smart, they're bright, they're excellent at what they do. We need them in renewables, we need them in the solution. So actually, rather than demonising the people who work in oil, gas and fossils, I just want to recruit them into the solutions.
Yeah, that sounds great. You talk about culture wars and green-hushing. Green-hushing? Not heard that one before.
So at the moment in the US, and part of Futerra's work is we have offices in New York and in San Francisco, we do a lot of work in the US. And in fact, my mom's American, so it's a situation I know very well. We have these very, very, very extreme culture wars and they are serious and they affect policy. And we've seen, we've all experienced it over the last five years, six years, in terms of what that can mean on an international stage, with Trump and Biden. So a lot of companies are not changing anything which they're doing about sustainability because they have to and they're convinced and they're preparing, and you get a lot of very rational people working in business who realise that this needs to happen, but they are increasingly concerned about talking about it too publicly.
And so that's where the green-hushing comes in, which is where businesses don't want there to be a big Twitter cascade against them or don't want to have a whole load of nasty emails sent to them by some of the hard right, et cetera. And so you do get this issue around companies perhaps being slightly quieter than they were about sustainability, or at least some companies. On the other side, you've got other companies who are speaking up even more so about this, and who see their destiny in the young consumers. So any business that weights towards younger consumers tends to be louder and louder about sustainability and climate. But some of the, should we say, the more conservative businesses themselves, and particularly those who appeal to older or who appeal to cross partisan lines consumers, being a little bit more careful about what they're saying. Which is not just happening on climate, it's happening on LGBTQIA as well, it's happening on social and purpose work, that some businesses are continuing to do what they've done, but being a little bit hushed about talking about it.
That's interesting. You probably heard about the weatherman in Iowa who was retained by his TV station to talk specifically about climate change, but received death threats and has now moved away from the state.
Yes. It's actually really sad how climate change has entered the culture wars, again, as you spoke earlier about it being a ball that that's thrown around. But when I'm in the states, and my family's originally from Mishawaka, Indiana, so very much in one of those central states, what you find is that the words 'climate change' become a flash issue.
But when you actually get down to the grain of it, when you start talking about renewable energies, you tend to find a great deal of support for renewable energies across party lines, and a great expectation that the future is going to be renewable. When you start talking about healthy eating, and particularly in terms of eating more plants, you tend to find overwhelming enthusiasm about these sort of things. Composting. When you actually get down to the specifics rather than the politics, people tend to overwhelmingly support some of these activities and actions.
So what a lot of folks in the US are doing now, what a lot of our clients are doing, is actually talking about they do the action, not the why. Not least because, let's be honest, climate change is now communicating itself, it's taken over the job. With these extreme weather events which are just going to go in one direction for the foreseeable future, actually, trying to convince anyone who doesn't think climate change is happening, climate change is going to do that job for us. It's actually the solutions that need our communications. And what we find is that there's much less of a culture war about the solutions than there is about the problem.
Just Stop Oil
Well, that's good news. Before we talk about your book, let me just ask you, what do you think about Just Stop Oil? Are they going in the right direction or are they just an irritant?
When we look at all social change movements, and from the women's suffrage, through to the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and many others between, there was never a consistency in the plan. There was always an extreme wing who often annoyed, irritated, frustrated the moderate wing in terms of what they were doing. So when I talk to folks in those who were in Extinction Rebellion and the work that they did before, and the Just Stop Oil, they don't mind that people hate them as individuals. Their only job, their only concern, is to make sure that climate change does not slip out of the news. That's all they care about. And one of the things which they can show is that whilst survey after survey shows that everybody hates them, every time they do a stunt, concern about climate change goes up. And that's the only factor, the only number they care about, is that people might like environmentalists a little bit less, but care about climate change a little bit more.
So whilst I live in London, I get stuck in traffic, I get stuck on undergrounds, they have sometimes made my life quite difficult, and I think that it makes talking to cab drivers a little bit challenging when you're talking about climate change, that in terms of their objectives, they are fulfilling their objectives perfectly.
That's very interesting. Now, your book is called The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix the Future. What does your book tell us?
So I wrote my book for everybody. Those of us who are working already in sustainability, those who are working in other jobs, those who are working in other sectors, but who want to, in their work life, be able to make a difference. Because we talk a lot about doing things in your own life, eating less meat, traveling less by car and by flight, et cetera. We talk quite a lot about perhaps voting in terms of what you care about on sustainability, teaching your kids about it. But actually, most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. And so I wrote The Solutionists for your career, whether you are in sustainability or not, and how can you be part of the solution? Because there's lots of wonderful handbooks out there in terms of what a business can do, but there's less about what an individual and what a person can do in their own work life. So I wrote The Solutionists for everybody who wants to do work that matters and to make a difference in their career.
Great. Well, thank you. A final thought?
Final thought is, as we all look around the world at the moment, it's very, very easy to be drawn into fatalism and to worry and into doom. However, if that's the mindset that motivates you to take action, fine. But for most people it's not. So remember, you're allowed to be happy, you're allowed to enjoy your life, you're allowed to have fun, as long as we take action. So please, a little bit less doom, and a little bit more doing.
Solitaire Townsend, thank you very much for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Thank you so very much for having me.
Thank you to Solitaire Townsend for some interesting thoughts and ideas. There’s a link to that TED Talk below and you will also find a link to her book which is available from all good bookshops.
That’s it for today.
I have 11 people who have asked to appear on the Sustainable Futures Report. In fact it’s a lot more than that, but I have to turn many down as totally irrelevant. Although I’ve responded and engaged with these people, all but one have yet to suggest an interview date. The one who has, has chosen 23rd August, so we won’t be hearing from him for a while.
It seems to be a very good idea for me to take the whole of August off, which I was intending to do, although I was hoping to have some pre-recorded interviews to schedule during that month. We'll see how it goes.
In any case, there is no doubt that there will still be wildfires, droughts, floods, heating oceans, polluted rivers and indifferent politicians come September.
I am Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I'll be back soon.
Solitaire Townsend's TED Talk
Solitaire Townsend's Book: The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix the Future
Image by CDD20