'Keeping it Clean' with Sue Riddlestone OBE, Chief Executive and Co-founder of Bioregional
Sue Riddlestone… where to start? She is an incredible ambassador for sustainability, the Chief Executive and Co-founder of Bioregional and a wonderfully passionate, driven and determined mother, grandmother and friend to so many people.
This is a special one for us at brightsmith, since we are very proud partners of Sue and her team at Bioregional. Established in 1994, Bioregional’s vision enables people to live happy, healthy lives within the natural limits of the planet, leaving space for wildlife and wilderness.
Sue is a passionate advocate of the Sustainable Development Goals, which she lobbied for and were agreed by world governments in September 2015. Rumour has it she also had a little something to do with the London 2012 Olympics…
Can you share a little insight into yourself and Bioregional?
What’s me and what’s Bioregional? I’m not sure where one stops and the other starts! 30 years ago, I knew I had to do something about the impact we humans were having in the natural world. That said, I had no idea I would be sitting here today doing what I’m doing. I just set off on a journey and what an amazing journey it’s been.
I followed what was important to me, and what felt ‘right’. Initially, I thought maybe I can set up a green business to reduce pressure on the world’s forests which were being cut down for paper products, which I did, and somehow this led on to building ecovillages, working at the UN and all of the things I now do and love.
What was it like back then?
Originally, I trained as a nurse, got married young, had 3 kids, and with 3 small kids under 5 I couldn’t work, but did start volunteering. I was a member of Greenpeace. At first I just got sent the newsletter. This was the point in the 1980s where a lot of seals were being washed up on beaches due to pollution in the sea, there was huge deforestation, and very little was being done to stop it. I realised it was very serious and I wanted to do something about it. I began campaigning, set up a local Greenpeace group and began calling people who had expressed an interest. Soon we had 100 members, raised £20,000 in 3 years, and were campaigning for Antarctica to become a World Park.
I then joined a Friends of the Earth group focused on saving land and creating nature reserves. I also began volunteering with Wen (Women’s Environmental Network), which after my kids moved from nursery to school, became a larger part of my life and I became a board member. I also attended a local centre for environmental initiatives, run by a wonderful lady named Vera, which supported more sustainable living locally, and began various projects with them.
What motivated you to start your own business?
A number of things, but it was at this time I met Pooran Desai, who I then founded Bioregional with, and later married. Although today we are amicably separated, but still happily working together!
Pooran had been doing local activism too and came to the centre of environmental initiatives, where we worked on a woodlands project. We shared ideas, which eventually mushroomed into something so big that Vera chucked us out! She told us to set up our own organisation — so we did. We found an empty space in the ecology centre near my house, set up Bioregional and fell in love with each other.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that we started talking about these ideas, I probably would’ve got a job for Wen and he would’ve got a job at WWF. However, we did have the ideas, and setting up a business allowed me to be close to my kids. As a single mother, I needed flexibility and I needed to be there for them, and in many ways, they were very much a part of it.
So, I was working on alternative paper products and Pooran worked on locally produced charcoal. We both signed up to the enterprise allowance of £40/week for 6 months, which also provided business training and mentoring, which was incredibly helpful.
What was next? How did Bioregional move towards what it is today?
As you know, I didn’t end up becoming an alternative paper ‘magnate’. Instead my work evolved and Bioregional’s focus was on how we can live well locally, have a more circular economy, create more jobs locally and reduce pressure on nature and the world’s forests.
We decided to set up as a charity, both so we could apply for grants and I also think it helped people to see that we were doing it ‘for the good’ and not to make money. These days people are recognised social entrepreneurs, and it turns out that’s what we were, just before it was a thing; purpose led entrepreneurs!
We received grants in order to test out ideas, bring partnerships together, bring products to market and build ecovillages. Bioregional aimed to meet peoples needs locally, drive a thriving economy and create more jobs. This is perhaps more crucial now than ever, with a need for jobs, the danger of some global supply chains being magnified and the carbon emissions at dangerous levels.
We truly believe that business is great, of course we should trade but we should always consider local first, and we should certainly trade fairly. Business needs to be circular and sustainable, but also a ‘business’. Sometimes business is seen as a dirty word, but we wanted to show green business can work in the economy. If it works, then it will catch on and happen more widely in the economy.
Why is this work so important?
We are now living in a world in which if everyone lived the aspirational middle-class lifestyle, we would need 3 planets to sustain us! Through our ‘one planet living’ concept, we are working to reduce this, and of course I am very conscious to live a ‘one planet life’ myself. We live our initiatives; we tell our stories and we freely let other people use the one planet living framework so they can live it too. We use these examples and stories to drive policy change.
We are striving for a world where people get paid properly and we consume fairly; a fair, just and sustainable world.
Can you share an example of how this works in reality?
A great example of this was setting up a lavender field, where we worked with the local prison, training them in horticulture. We then used this template to set up a 20-acre lavender field, which believe it or not became a bit of a hit on Chinese TripAdvisor and features in many a Chinese wedding photo! This was done with the support of local groups and sponsorship from Yardley. Brendan Maye, who was working at Yardley at the time, loved it so much he bought it and still runs the field with his wife as a family business today!
Let’s talk BedZED… how did that just come out of nowhere?
When we reached 12 people and were still working at the ecology centre, I said ‘why don’t we just build ourselves a green office’. The council showed us local land and it ended up becoming BedZED. At the time I had no idea we would be building a world-famous exemplar sustainable village. I still live here, and I love it. It now features in the GCSE geography course, in university courses and on my way around the world I’ve met people as far away as China and Brazil who have been on tours of BedZED!
Although we didn’t have much money, we made the decision to take a big site so we could live there too. Every time we started a new project, we worked for nothing, presented it to developers to find a partner, and in this case, we were lucky that Peabody shared our vision and partnered with us. We secured the funding in 97, went on site in 2000 and it was finished and open in 2002!
We thought about it as environmentalists. We considered the impact we were having day to day through energy usage, what we eat, where we drive, the materials our houses are made of and how we could make it easy for people to live a sustainable life. We put so much love and attention into it and did the best job we could.
What’s it like there now?
It resulted in such a lovely project and it’s a joy to live here all these years on. It’s a community, the roads are pushed to the outside, you know your neighbours, you grow your own vegetables, kids all play together on the field and safely ride bikes. There are 100 homes and roughly 250 people of every age and every demographic. The homes range from 1 to 4 bed, half were sold, a quarter went to people on low income for rent and a quarter are part rent / part buy for key workers.
Initially we were shocked by how exciting it was to others, so much so we opened a visitors’ centre, and almost 2 decades on we are still doing tours. We get the odd famous person, and politician through the doors. David Cameron’s visit caused quite a stir! People started coming to us to ask how they can ‘build a BedZED’ and this in turn led to the ‘one planet living’ framework systematising what we had done through 10 principles.
We use it for all our work, and even used it to write the sustainability strategy for the Olympics! That was hands down one of my fondest and most treasured memories.
I was going to ask about the pinch yourself moment, but I sense that it might just be the Olympics?
You might be right! To give some context to how it happened, I’m fond of writing to people to ask if they want help. When Ken Livingstone, who had previously promoted our local paper project, became the Mayor of London, I volunteered my services to be a London Sustainable Development Commissioner. It was a voluntary role which I did for about 12 years. It was decided early on in this that we would bid for Olympics, and Ken wanted to ensure it was sustainable. I worked with an amazing team, including David Stubbs who brought his dog to BedZED as we worked on the bid at the weekend!
‘One Planet Olympics’! WWF endorsed it, they were partnering with us on a wider basis at the time and gave one planet living a big boost. As you know, we won the bid and had written a very strong plan for sustainability, which was then legally binding. We scrutinised everything and were totally enmeshed in making the Olympics as sustainable as possible. It was a massive team effort with some incredible and influential outcomes for the construction industry who had to work to these standards.
A true highlight of the whole thing for me was being invited to the athlete’s village sleepover, and the rehearsal of the opening ceremony. It one of the happiest days of my life, seeing it all come to reality, it was just so much fun!
This is a good example of where people often haven’t heard of Bioregional, but we have had a hand in some incredible and high-profile projects. I always try to do the best job I can, and the result has been amazing. I feel like my life has been magical and I can’t believe all these things have happened!
Any other stand out moments you’d like to share?
In December of that year I came back from a trip to find a letter from Downing Street saying we are giving you an OBE for your Services to Sustainable Business and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in the 2013 New Year’s Honours. My jaw dropped… how incredible! It wasn’t just an award for me, it was an award for all of the amazing people I’d worked with for so many years. Someone has to be the figurehead, but I couldn’t possibly do it on my own.
I also got to go to a party at Buckingham Palace, meet the Queen and ask her if she recycles! This was a little life lesson for me. I REALLY wanted to meet her, I asked one of her staff where she would be and stood waiting in that very spot! The lesson: don’t be shy and always ask people for help. In fact, this has been such a big feature in my life — volunteer your help, ask others for help and it’s amazing what happens!
What drives this continued passion for helping the planet?
In the run up to Copenhagen Climate Talks in 2009, which famously fell into disarray, I was invited to Netherlands to hear from IPCC Climate Scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele. I was still under the impression that we were tackling climate change, and he then presented some charts that the emission levels had reached the tipping point and climate change was coming.
I asked what we could do to stop this, and he showed me on a graph that we would have to stop all emissions from that day which of course wasn’t possible. I was shocked, I was upset, I went home and about 3 days later I woke up from a dream sobbing from a place deep within. It makes me cry when I talk about it now, it was like grieving for someone who died. I thought we must do more, we must try harder, and so I did. Initially I struggled to understand what had happened to me. 6 months later I explained this experience to someone, who immediately told me ‘you’ve got climate trauma, a lot of people have it’. I still have it and I think I always will.
You’ve been doing some amazing work with the UN, how did this come about?
After the IPCC talk, I had an amplified purpose, I threw everything in the air and gave a talk to the whole company, which isn’t my natural way. I told them about what the scientist said and why we were going to make a difference.
At the time we had a partnership with B&Q, we had realised that One Planet Living worked for councils, for businesses, in fact for almost anything. That’s because it’s about people, what we need and the way we live. For B&Q it was the ‘one planet home’, we worked with them to create sustainable products and on their company operations, and the income from B&Q for the use of our trademark helped to fund our work at the UN level.
With a newly recruited colleague, Freya, and others from the Bioregional team we went to the 2009 Climate Conference to influence other nations, to show our solutions, our framework, our ecovillages and really to talk to people about how “it can be done”.
When did you sense you were making an impact?
We quickly realised that changing policy is a long process and we weren’t going to be able to influence the climate negotiations. So we got involved in the Rio+20 process in 2010 which had the goal of making a new plan for sustainable development, by bringing our real life examples and one planet living thinking to the discussion, subsuming ourselves into this group which became one big team with a shared vision.
We joined forces with 3 ladies from the Colombian, Guatemalan and Peruvian governments, and held our first side event on sustainable development goals in New York in 2011. It was one of those very special moments in my life, it was totally packed but you could’ve heard a pin drop! These goals became the main outcome of the Rio+20 process. Again, they don’t have our name on them, and they were the result of lots of people’s thinking, but they do have our DNA in there.
We were then made the UN Global NGO focal point for sustainable consumption and production. This was another landmark moment in my career and for Bioregional. We consulted with lots of other organisations, my colleagues wrote a report which I presented to the UN Co-chairs of the Sustainable Development Goals and the team watched it live from the office.
The Co-chair from Kenya came and thanked me for our work, said they liked the approach and were going to use it. I changed policy at a UN level! SDGs now include things that we wrote. Sustainable Development Goals are the closest thing we have for a plan for humans to live good lives on a sustainable planet, living in harmony with nature. As the SDGs were announced by UN in 2015, I sat in a coffee shop outside whilst Angelina Jolie was inside!
You’ve won some very prestigious awards for social entrepreneurship, that must feel pretty special?
In 2009 I won the Skoll award for Social Entrepreneurship. Jeff Skoll is a wonderful person who recognises ing people who solve the world’s most pressing problems. It brought us into a network with so many other social entrepreneurs which has been an incredible honour.
I wanted to attend the World Economic Forum to meet the influential people who go there and continue to share our “it can be done” message. But the only way for me to join was to win a Schwab award. So, we applied, won and I went to Davos! I think that the World Economic Forum is a good organisation, it’s committed to improving the state of the world. I’ve now been 3 times, and met some incredible people including Matt Damon. He co-founded water.org, so he’s a social entrepreneur too!
Right now I am part of a collaboration with other social entrepreneurs called Catalyst 2030 to create more partnerships to scale our solutions to achieve the SDGs.
When you look at your career, you must feel very proud?
Yes of course! I often work 12-hour days, it’s certainly not all glamorous, but because I wanted to do something good I’ve had a much more interesting life than if I’d towed the line and gone for salary. I’ve made a difference. You only get one life and you must make the most of it, do what inspires you and don’t be the person who looks back and says, I wish I’d done something else. Follow your dreams and I bet you won’t be disappointed with where they take you!
My next dream is to ensure we achieve the SDGs by 2030. I’m 60 this year and a grandmother to 3 amazing children , I’ll be 70 then and I believe we are all in this together, 2030 or bust! We will continue our push to influence governments, to inspire that a better world is possible.
We’ve talked about success, but what does it truly mean for you?
Success is a combination of happiness, fulfilment and purpose. Life is amazing and we only have one, so I want to make the most of mine, doing something important and meaningful. Through following this, I’ve had an interesting life with so many magical moments that I would’ve never dreamed of. So perhaps for me success is when you know you did something meaningful, did what felt right, and followed your inspiration. For me it was motivated by the better world we want to see for the next generation and choosing a future which is something we can all stand by.
Thanks Sue, you are incredible!