Julia Hailes MBE: “My environmental career is founded on recognising and promoting the power of consumers and market forces to make positive change”
Julia Hailes, British author of the The Green Consumer Guide and eight other environmental books has been working for over 35 years as sustainability advocate. In 1992 she was appointed to the UN Global 500 Roll of Honour for her outstanding environmental achievements.
Could you tell us about your background and what ignited your passion to protect the environment?
In my 20s, I travelled around South America with a girlfriend. I remember standing on this beautiful remote beach in Brazil when a plastic bag circled around my feet. It made me realise that human impacts are everywhere and that we need to look after our planet.
Then I went and stayed in the Pantanal wetlands in western Brazil. It was the most spectacular place teaming with wildlife and the rainforest stretching into the distance. I was staying with a very wealthy Spanish family and meals were served by waiters with white gloves! The sad thing is that I discovered my hosts were responsible for the chainsaws I could hear cutting swathes through the forest. Maybe this was the key turning point in my life, as I’ve campaigned against the destruction of the rainforests ever since. This year they’re being destroyed faster than ever, so I haven’t been very successful in my quest. It tears my heart out.
A few years later I was crewing a luxury racing yacht in the Caribbean - Teddy Kennedy was one of the guests. When I joined the boat all the rubbish was thrown straight into the sea. And, there seemed to be a disconnect between their actions and the consequences, because when they arrived on a beautiful island they would complain about the litter. Before I left the boat, I managed to make sure that all the rubbish was taken back to shore.
I spent several years travelling in my early 20s and it made a huge difference in enlightening me about what was happening in the world and in motivating me to do something about it. The irony is that the growing concern about the impacts of air travel on climate might make people think twice about travelling as much as I did.
Who were your influences growing up and what impact have they had on your career?
When I was a child, I used to go off for walks with my father. We talked about all sorts of things and in particular about the destruction going on and the world being over-crowded. My father was brought up in Burma and spent many years in the tropics. He said that he didn’t immediately realise the devastating impact of what he was witnessing first-hand - clearing forests for palm oil, for example. I think these discussions were instrumental in getting me started down the environmental path - it got into my DNA.
How did you initiate your environmental career?
In 1986, I started working for EarthLife, an organisation that was ahead of its time - channeling money from business directing into environmental causes. It was there that I teamed up with John Elkington who subsequently became my business partner and with whom I wrote eight of the nine books I’ve written. We set up the first sustainability consultancy in the UK - called SustainAbility. We worked for many blue-chip companies, but with the understanding that if they weren’t interested in changing, then we weren’t the right advisors for them. I believe that it’s important to stand up for your values, say what you think, change opinions and not just accept the status quo. I’m proud that this approach led us to being an effective force for change.
In 1988, you wrote and sold over a million copies of The Green Consumer Guide. What inspired you to write it?
The first book John and I worked on was called Green Pages: The Businesses of Saving the World. Compiling it was fantastic for me - as a sort of training in terms of learning about the key issues and who was who in the green movement.
At the time organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were getting people on the streets to protest against business. We took a different approach with our next book - The Green Consumer Guide. It was about products and lifestyle choices each of us make every day and we explained how they impacted on the environment. The real message was about your power as a consumer and how you could be a force for change. The book eventually sold over 1 million copies worldwide. There were 11 print runs in its first few weeks, and it became a UK number one best-seller.
Can you tell us about your consulting work and some accomplishments?
The real surprise for us was the response that we got from big business. Many of them came towards us saying ‘We realise the environment is important, but what do we do about it’. Our consultancy practice took off as we started carrying out ‘environmental audits’, promoting life-cycle assessments and helping companies rethink what they were doing. At the same time, I was touring the TV studios and became a regular, particularly on breakfast TV.
One of the biggest issues emerging was the destruction of the ozone layer. Scientists discovered that there was a man-made hole in it. Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs were the chief culprit. These chemicals were widely used as in every-day products such as aerosols, foam packaging and fridges. Initially, industry fought back, denying the problem, but some broke ranks and appealed to ‘the green consumer’ with their ‘ozone-friendly’ or ‘CFC-free’ products. The government was less effective at getting change - companies complained that the new equipment needed would be too expensive. However, when big companies like McDonalds refused to buy any more CFC foam packaging, market forces prevailed - and investment in cleaner technology was made.
What are the main factors that have led the human race towards the destruction of the planet?
Wealth and poverty are key. For example, subsistence farmers get paid for clearing the forests - they don’t feel they have a choice. Of course, it would make much more sense if the best environmental solution was the most profitable one. The challenge is how to make this happen. A friend of mine, Simon Lamb, has written a book called ‘Junglenomics’ - and it’s all about that.
What are the most important steps that we need to take to reverse the damaging effects of climate change?
35 years ago, there weren’t many companies that were aware of climate change, let alone doing anything about it. Now there are few that aren’t. However, the current focus is generally on how to keep on doing the same business but with less impact. My view is that we need a new paradigm. Businesses should be looking at how they can use their skills and knowledge to make positive changes for the planet - and then work out how they can make that profitable. Forget just doing ‘less bad’. What we need is ‘more good’ - businesses making a positive difference.
Could you tell us about your involvement with CHASE Africa and how family planning is a game changer for African communities?
One of the things that’s very striking about working in Africa is the cycle of poverty. For women, this is particularly stark. Many of them have no access to family planning and subsequently have large numbers of children. This means they don’t have time to work and so can’t afford to either feed or educate their young, which in turn leads to the same destructive cycle, with children becoming mothers ahead of time.
CHASE Africa is breaking this cycle by providing access to family planning in remote and rural communities. This is particularly important, not only for the social benefits it brings, but also to reduce the pressure on land. As populations rise so does the need for fuel, water and food.
Some people worry that there’s a conflict between the social and environment dimension of CHASE Africa’s work. Which are we more concerned about? My view is that both issues are inextricably entwined. If we can help these communities become more sustainable, we will be relieving pressure on the people themselves and the land that supports them.
Do you think Net-Zero targets 2030 & 2050 are helpful?
Yes and no. It has helped companies become aware about climate change and to look at what they can do to reduce greenhouse gases. But for many companies I’m not convinced that their targets are ambitious enough. They should not simply be aiming for the minimum to comply but investigating how to do the maximum possible. For some businesses it wouldn’t be too hard to become climate positive, rather than simply net zero. Perhaps the net zero target is actually constraining them…
Where would you like to see governments and intergovernmental organisations focusing their energies over the next decade?
I desperately want to put up a sign saying STOP! Instead of scooping rubbish out of the sea, we need to look at why that waste is getting there in the first place. Of course, planting trees is good but perhaps even more importantly we must stop destroying the forests we already have.
One of the most shocking statistics I’ve read recently is that only 4% of all the world’s mammals are wild, 60% are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, whilst 36% are humans. I’m not sure where pets come in, but this is horrendous. Let’s bring back biodiversity before it’s too late. I’m working with an organisation promoting wilding in schools - Operation Future Hope. This is not just something for the next generation though, we have to start tackling it right now.
We need to dramatically change farming practices, remove perverse incentives to destroy nature, make sustainability pay and be bold and innovative in our solutions. Let’s create eco towns and cities with circular economy systems and not waste. Let’s welcome the age of electricity by replacing fossil fuels with renewables. And let’s have a clean environment with healthy communities.
That’s the world I’d like to live in - and play a part in creating.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Julia Hailes MBE, Environmental Consultant and Writer