The Positive Life of Julia Hailes
10 min read
The sustainability world is rife with inspirational figures, but no one is quite like Julia Hailes. As someone who has been championing sustainability for over 30 years she had an approachable, passionate and steadfast attitude – telling us how the environmental world has changed since she co-authored her best-selling book, ‘The Green Consumer Guide’, with John Elkington in 1988. As a newly appointed judge of our Positive Luxury Awards 2020, we took the opportunity to quiz her on all things sustainability and find out what she really thinks about businesses and campaigning today.
When did you realise sustainability was your passion?
After working in TV Production I quit my job to go travelling and ended up being chucked off a boat in the Caribbean with just $50 in my pocket. I got a job crewing on yachts, including being a stewardess on a beautiful 81-foot racing boat owned by an American tycoon. The awful thing about it was that all the rubbish was chucked into the sea. Everything, including plastics, glass bottles – the works. When we got to a beautiful spot the crew complained about the litter on the beach. I pointed out that they were partly responsible and managed to get them to change their ways. This small incident really stuck with me.
Another key experience was staying at a remote ranch in the Brazilian rainforest – a haze of trees stretched to the horizon in every direction. I don’t believe in God but that was the closest I’ve been to a spiritual experience. However, my peace was disrupted by the sound of chain saws. Horrifically, the forest was being cleared by the family I was staying with. This was a pivotal moment for me – and my desire to protect the rainforests is what started me working as an environmentalist. I was determined to do something about it.
How did it all start?
I started working with John Elkington in 1986, at Earth Life – the first campaigning organisation that was getting business to invest in sustainability. The organisation splintered soon after I joined, which led to John and I setting up a new consultancy / think tank – SustainAbility Ltd. Working from his house in Barnes, we decided that our key objectives were to make money, make a difference and enjoy ourselves whilst we were doing it.
Published in 1987, our first book was called ‘Green Pages – The Business of Saving the World’. It was a compendium of interviews key green players with a focus on how different business sectors could and should be driving the sustainability agenda. For me, working on the book was like a training session – I learnt a tremendous amount about green issues and who was doing what in the area.
What led you to write the successful Green Consumer Guide?
But it was our next book that really caught the public mood. The Green Consumer Guide, published in the Autumn of 1988, had an explosive impact – with 11 print runs in the first few weeks and ultimately selling over 1m copies world wide. It just went nuts.
John’s idea was to demonstrate that there were good business opportunities for companies offering products and services with good green credentials. Whilst my focus was to get environmental issues into the mainstream. My view was that they should no longer be seen as fringe or associated with being a hippy. The combination of John’s knowledge and experience – he had already been working in this area for at least 10 years – and my communication skills worked incredibly well.
There was a massive amount of media attention with numerous newspaper articles, radio interviews and TV appearances, particularly morning programmes. I got a regular slot on the Richard & Judy programme, where I ran around in a green track suit explaining about recycling and energy efficiency, amongst other things.
If I’m honest, I think that if we hadn’t done it someone else would have. It was clearly the right idea at the right time. Take the supermarkets, for example. When I first got in touch with them, whilst researching The Green Consumer Guide, they were totally unaware of the green issues affecting their business. But, by the time I was researching our next book, focusing on supermarkets, all of them had started employing environmental advisors. We sent out a 99 page green questionnaire and many of them used it as a guide to what they should be doing.
How did you become a consultant in sustainability for the biggest corporate players?
One of the brilliant things that followed the success of our books, was that a lot of companies came to ask us for help. They realised that they needed to improve on their environmental performance and they wanted to find out how. In my mid twenties I was advising large corporates like Procter & Gamble, Shell and ICI.
They didn’t always like what I told them. For example, I remember talking to a number of ICI executives about CFCs – a chemical they made – and how it was destroying the ozone layer. I explained that we were campaigning for CFC-free aerosols, fridges and foam cups. They were quite antagonist, seeing me as a stooge for Greenpeace or some other scary campaigning organisation. But John and I were pragmatic, we were convinced that by challenging and changing businesses, we could really make a positive difference. And, we had discovered that using market forces – the power of the public purse – to drive these changes, was incredibly effective.
I was quite nervous about making my first major speech which was at the Royal Academy of Arts, but soon discovered that this is something I rather enjoy. I like surprising the audience, challenging them and seeing how they respond. But when I spoke to the Green Party conference in 1989, I was booed and heckled. Apart from being berated for talking about ‘the man in the street’ the key bone of contention was summed up by ‘Why have we got someone on the platform, who is making money from the environment?’. At the same time the idealists were waking up to the power of green consumerism, as they had begun to sell ‘green’ products in the conference foyer!
“Consumer power is one of the most effective drivers for change. Business really takes notice if they see opportunities from going green – or indeed lose market share through bad practice.”
What was your biggest challenge in this role?
One of the scariest encounters we had was when McDonalds tried to get all copies of The Green Consumer Guide removed from sale. We said that that they had been ‘implicated in tropical rainforest destruction’ by sourcing beef grown in areas cleared of rainforests. We also challenged them about using CFCs in their foam cups.
This clash was resolved when they flew some of their top executives to the UK to meet us. Although we declined to work as consultants, the meeting took the heat out of the conflict. We followed up by sending them detailed questions about their environmental practices, most of which didn’t get answered at the time. A few years later came McLibel, which was the longest running legal case in history. McDonalds took a couple of activists from Greenpeace London, to court and they spent about 3 years battling about the issues raised. Our earlier encounter was a lucky escape.
But McDonalds changed their tune. Nearly 20 years on, they were challenged again about destruction of the rainforests, for growing soya for chicken feed. Instead of taking a combative approach, they sent a team to investigate the problem, decided that they should stop growing soya in that area – and most encouragingly committed to getting other companies to stop too.
This turnabout led me to accept an invitation to give a talk to European McDonalds executives about what they should be doing on the environmental front. They must have liked what they heard because I then received an invitation to speak to a huge McDonalds conference in Chicago. The testimonial I received following this was ‘we asked Julia to be challenging and provocative – and she sure as hell fulfilled her brief’. I didn’t let them off the hook – and was encouraged that they were willing to listen to a critic.
How do you take part in reducing waste?
n the last 10 years, I’ve been carrying out a major building renovation project, but have also been focusing on waste issues. We are a ridiculously wasteful society and there’s so much more that we could and should be doing about it.
It seems incredible to me that my dentist is now discarding a little pack of disposable dental tools, after he’s seen each patient, even if he hasn’t actually used all of them. Or that postal deliveries arrive in boxes that are 10 times bigger than they need to be, along with multiple bags and wrappings, that are useless. I ordered a dress the other day, that arrived with bubble wrap, as well as requisite tissue paper and bags. It’s mad.
“Technology and innovation have made humans the most wasteful species on the planet. In the 21st century, we must use our ingenuity to turn this around and make progress without waste.”
The focus of public attention, whipped up by what I call the Blue Planet effect, is on the very real problem of ocean plastics. However, this anti-plastic reaction doesn’t always make sense from an environmental point of view. Take milk, for example. There are rallying cries to ‘bring back the milkman’ – but that’s a bit bonkers. Can you imagine if all our groceries was delivered in separate vehicles in incredibly heavy glass containers? Plastic bags are also better than paper ones, in terms of their carbon footprint. They take 4 times less energy to make, weigh 6 times less and are 10 times less bulky.
What this means is that it’s not so much plastic that’s the key issue, but what we do with it. One of the biggest challenges is stopping it getting into the sea. I want to capitalise on public concerns about waste to get change that really does make sense.
My son, Connor, has set up a sustainable design consultancy, called Loop Innovations. He and his business partner are focusing initially on festival waste. They’re selling cups made from 100% recycled plastic, that are collected after use for recycling again and again, in a closed loop system. One of surprising things they discovered is that some re-usable cups at these events are actually sent overseas for washing!
Why is it important that the luxury industry champions sustainability?
My father wore the same pair of shoes for most of his adult life. It’s a good illustration of the value of good quality ‘luxury’ products that are built to last. This can be more cost-effective than endlessly buying cheaper products on a regular basis – and it’s certainly better for the planet.
But, in recent years I’ve heard some truly shocking stories about the luxury industry. In particular that many well known designer brands actually burn or bury their clothes at the end of a season, so they can’t be worn or re-sold by anyone. I think this is despicably wasteful and must be stopped. I’m not going to elaborate on the huge environmental impacts of textiles and clothing, but it’s not hard to understand that simply throwing them away, without ever being used is an eco-crime.
“We should all feel able to challenge the status quo and recognise that each of us have the power to change things and make a positive difference”
There’s a lot more the luxury goods industry should be doing in looking at the resources that go into their products, the way they’re made, employment practices and how they’re marketed. I’m looking forward to being involved in the Positive Luxury Awards to promote best practice in the industry.
Why do you think everybody should take action?
If there’s one thing that stands out in my career is that it’s about changing things. I’ve never been willing to accept that we have to continue doing something just because that’s the way it has always been done. And, I was lucky enough to discover that we all have the power to make a difference.
I used to have a quote from Edmund Burke, at the end of my emails, which was ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little’. This really chimes with our green consumer mission. Some people would criticise us for not pushing for people to go a lot further and faster. My response was that you might be able to get a small number of people trained to run a marathon, but the impact of that would be negligible compared to millions of people running a mile. I’m interested in the biggest overall impact and positive environmental changes – and that doesn’t mean just preaching to the converted.
The new movement that’s emerging under the Extinction Rebellion banner, gives an urgency to climate change. I’m delighted with how effective they’ve been in putting this on the political agenda. My main focus will be on waste, but I have many green hats which I’ll still be keeping aloft, which includes supporting a charity promoting family planning and conservation in Africa – CHASE Africa.
There are lots of issues to choose from, but what unites them all is that we need a new approach. Businesses should not be getting away with simply telling us how they are reducing their environmental impact from bad to not quite so bad. I will be supporting businesses that are actually leading the way to positive change – and playing a major part in creating the future we all want. A cleaner, greener planet.
Written by - Katie Stalker