What difference can I make?

Our living planet is in a terrible state and it can be daunting to work out what you can personally do to improve the situation. For me some days, that can mean I stick my head in the sand, avoid the news and feel like it’s all too hard. Particularly in weeks when the IPCC says we need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 (compared to 2010 levels) to keep warming to 1.5C and if we don’t the effects will be catastrophic. That’s only 12 years away!! And when research on extinction suggests that it will take millions of years for biodiversity to recover from the destruction we’re causing and that 60% of all animal populations have been wiped out since 1970 due to humans.

But most days I’m an optimist.

I believe that things only change because of individuals, who don’t like what they see, who are committed to making things better and who do everything they can to make positive change happen.

We need systemic, global change to keep global warming to only 1.5C and the main actors that can create that level of change are governments and businesses (including financial institutions). The UN Sustainable Development Goals give a comprehensive framework for what needs to be done, from both an environmental and social perspective to create a sustainable future. Both businesses and governments are heavily influenced by individuals – consumers, employees, investors, voters – and so we can each make a difference if we get involved and shout about the change we want and need.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

I believe change starts at home, in your own lifestyle for 3 reasons. Firstly, many small actions combine to make a big collective impact. Secondly, it adds credibility to advocacy with others if you are doing what you can in your own life. Lastly, this is largely within your own control and therefore you can make progress as quickly as you want and see that you are making a difference. This may be on a small scale initially but we all need successes that keep motivation up, even if they are small. For me this means: not eating meat, taking public transport, getting single use plastic out of my house, flying less, buying local vegetables, buying less stuff, moving to an ethical bank and volunteering for relevant charities. I also try and talk to friends, family and collegues about it to make them think but not in a overly pushy way as that doesn’t usually work! For more inspiration: Futerra, in collaboration with a few other organisations, have just launched the Good Life Goals, which give clear actions that we can take to help make tomorrow better than today.

Businesses are the next step, as an employee and as a consumer. For people who are associated with a company in some way as an employee/associate/founder/advisor, what is your company doing to address its sustainability footprint? Is it working to embed the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the organisation, does it have emission reduction targets, is the executive pay tied to progress on sustainability? And are you comfortable that they are doing enough? If not, what ways do you have to influence people? That is no small question. Particularly if you work in/with a large company, it’s not easy to find the right senior sponsor who will listen and then help actually do something. But it is possible. In 2016, Heathrow airport achieved certification to the Carbon Trust Standard for Supply Chain and their sustainability actions in supply chain started with one passionate person who worked in the procurement team and it grew from there.

As consumers we have many choices on where we chose to spend our money and what we buy. Companies are very concerned about their reputation and of course about consumers buying their products. Particularly with waste, the BBC Blue Planet II series has brought the issue of ocean plastic into the mainstream media and the general public’s awareness and companies are having to take more significant action to change their impact. There is a greater reputational impact of not doing anything or being seen to not care than there was in the past. The recent campaign targeting Walkers crisps is one example of the power consumers can wield using online petitions, social media and attention-grabbing ideas to make companies listen. They have now started a recycling programme for all crisp packets thanks to actions of a number of individual campaigns and grass-roots campaigning groups.

So consider what you buy and from where. Sometimes the “greener” option is more expensive and so isn’t an option but tell them that you aren’t happy with it. And also tell them when you are shopping somewhere else and for what reason. In my experience the replies you get initially aren’t very inspiring but if they hear it enough, like with Walkers, then they will change.

Finally on the government, which for me is most critical but also the trickiest. In the UK, our MPs are elected to serve the needs of the people who live in their constituency and so they should be responding to what we are concerned about. They can’t really know what we’re concerned about unless we tell them. In addition, responding to relevant consultations for your local area is important so that your point of view is heard on specific topics and joining in any political activism you feel comfortable with: joining protect marches like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife in the UK, signing petitions, starting your own grassroots campaign and definitely definitely voting.

You can make a difference and nothing will ever change if no-one choses to stand up for what they believe is right. Reduce your own environmental footprint. Choose carefully where you spend your money and tell companies why. Get politically active.

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