Eco Hero: Julia Hailes
Anna Guyer | 08.03.10
If working for sustainability of our planet was an Olympic sport, Julia Hailes would be on the podium with a green medal. A tireless advocate for an eco-friendly lifestyle, she dedicated herself to environmental issues long before anyone ever knew it was important, or that we would need to think about it, or it became the fashionable status symbol that some consider it to be today.
The list of her contributions on social, environmental and ethical issues is too long to list here, but you might know her as the author/co-author of nine books on green living, including the best-selling Green Consumer Guide published in 1988, which sold over a million copies.
That book and it's 2007 sibling, The New Green Consumer Guide, serve as veritable bibles of how to live your life in a responsible and green way. Julia highlighted green issues and wrote about solutions before sustainability was a word on the public or boardroom agenda.
As a modern day Robin Hood, Julia leverages the grown-up salary she makes as a green consultant for some of the biggest companies in the country, so she can work for the smaller, less wealth-laden causes about which she is passionate. Currently, she's particularly fired up about supermarket refrigeration and resomation (an alternative form of cremation using water and with less impact on the environment).
I am work-shadowing her at the moment to learn more about sustainability - and on how to be superwoman. I've seen her turn up in comfy clothes, disappear into a public loo at a station, and emerge in smart clothes and quirky boots ready to take on the world. I sit, listen and learn while she tells clients or the minister or the councillor or whomever exactly what she thinks, how it is and what they need to do about it.
She connects people. She is pragmatic. She makes me laugh. She is an inspiration and she shows that you can stay true to your beliefs. She's my Eco Hero, and here are her answers to our Eco Hero questionnaire.
1. How would you describe yourself?
I describe myself as a campaigning consultant. Also, because I do lots of different things I summarise it by saying that "I wear many hats but they're all green.'
2. What is your mission?
Making a difference. When I co-founded SustainAbility with John Elkington, in 1987, we decided that the values of the organisation were like a three pronged stool, with all the prongs being equally important. They were to make money, make a difference and enjoy ourselves while we were doing it. I think that's still a pretty good approach to my work.
3. What do you care passionately about?
Saving the rainforests. It tears my heart out when I see chainsaws ripping through the forests, orangutans clinging to wrecked trees or swathes of tree stumps stretching into the distance. It was my concern for the rainforests that got me into the environmental field. Now I work on a huge range of issues and I'm passionate about many of them. For example, it might be strange to feel passionate about waste but I do. We've become such a disposable society where products and resources are consumed like there's no tomorrow. This has to change.
4. Why is green/eco so important?
Because it's all about the world we're living in. I don't want to live in a brown and dead landscape or in a society like the TV programme Survivors where everyone is at war with each other. Actually, I thought the film Avatar illustrated the contrast between an industrial and consumerist society vs. a green community that values nature. Most of us would prefer to be in the Avatar camp.
5. What is the next big challenge?
The biggest challenge is getting people to recognise that we don't have infinite resources, whether its energy, trees, oil or precious metals. This means that there will be some significant and radical changes needed in the way we live and in how much we all consume.
6. What is the role of government, how are they participating, are they doing enough?
The government are not doing nearly enough. They need to be far more innovative and visionary. The approach is generally about supporting business as usual but making it a bit greener. This is inadequate - and it's not very inspiring, which means it will always be difficult to get public buy in.
7. What would you like to achieve in your lifetime?
I'd love to be able to save the rainforests. If I were to win the lottery, that's what I'd be trying to achieve with the money. Another ambition is to switch the energy supply in this country to micro-power, working a bit like the internet with lots and lots of small-scale systems feeding into the grid. And I'd like to dramatically increase the number of anaerobic digestion plants across the country, providing biogas for transport and electricity. Actually, I've a whole list of things that I'd like to do, so it's difficult to pick out just a few.
8. What top 3 green/sustainable principles do you live by?
1. Never be put off by people saying that something hasn't been done like that before or that it's difficult
2. To recognise that anyone working in this area is bound to be a hypocrite because you can't do everything - so do as much as you can.
3. To retain a sense of humour and try and make it fun rather than worthy and boring - we've got to engage people and win them over rather than turn them off!
9. What one thing do you wish everyone would do?
I've often been asked this question in interviews about my books. Actually, I don't think it comes down to one thing but lots and lots of little things. But on a very micro level I wish people would stop using disposable paper napkins - it's become a real bug-bear of mine that you're even given a napkin when you buy a drink. How mad is that?
10. What one message/philosophy would you like to pass on to your children?
I'm not sure I've been brilliant at passing on a succinct green message to my children - they're still terrible at turning off lights and computers! However, many of the green things we do at home have become so ingrained they barely notice - sharing our bath water, separating our waste into lots of different bins, having limited hot water in the day and low flush lavatories. And we do have deep discussions about climate change, energy, the rainforests and other key issues. And my youngest son Monty used to pin up notices around his school about global warming - perhaps they'll turn out to be eco-campaigners after all.
11. How long have we got to save the planet, to change how we live?
I don't look at it in terms of 'how long have we got to save the world'. I think we have to do as much as we can, as fast as we can - and I'm sorry we're not changing a lot faster.
12. Who is YOUR Eco Hero and why?
I have two I'd like to mention. The first is Rene Haller, a Swiss agronomist working in Kenya. I admired him so much that I joined forces with him and co-founded a charity called Haller Foundation which aims to keep his legacy going - eco-system thinking, applied to rehabilitating land and helping promote sustainable communities. It includes farmer training programmes demonstrating the value of growing trees rather than chopping them down.
And my second eco-hero is Michael Pawlyn, who has recently founded a company called Exploration Architecture. He's also a fan of eco-system thinking and using examples from nature to create inspiring solutions. http://www.exploration-architecture.com/
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