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Oliver Balch talks to Futerra's co-founder about her journey from a Bedford council estate to one of the UK’s leading sustainability consultancies
To adapt a well-known phrase, some people are born disruptive, some achieve disruptiveness, and some have the status of disruptor thrust upon them.
For Solitaire Townsend, all three are valid. By her early teens, she was already a fully fledged sustainability activist (aged just 13, she campaigned – successfully – to stop a local nuclear waste site in her home town). As a post-graduate at Forum for the Future, she obtained a Masters in sustainable development (via Middlesex University). And today, 17 years on from co-founding the consultancy firm Futerra with Ed Gillespie, she is considered one of the top sustainability advisers in the business.
Looking back on her early life as a certified dyslexic growing up on a council estate in Bedford, part of her still struggles to compute her trajectory. With 70 staff spread over three continents, Futerra lays claim to being one of the world’s largest independent sustainability consultancies (the firm has offices in New York, Stockholm, London and Mexico City).
Yet another part of her can’t imagine doing anything else. In her view, having the opportunity to help shape the sustainability strategies of multinational giants like French food conglomerate Danone or US retailer Target is about as “f***ing amazing” as any job gets.
If I can help a corporation move just three degrees, the impact is bigger than anything I could hope to have operating as an individual
“There is so much fun getting to do this big transformative work … Yes, it's hard, it's stressful. I work 70-hour weeks. But it's so cool.”
In the serious, grown-up world of management consultancy, it’s rare to hear people describe their jobs as cool. But cool is precisely what 44-year-old Solitaire makes of it. She doesn’t run a billion-dollar business, she says. But she works directly with people who do. And when they act, the ripple effect can be incredible.
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of employees, millions of people in the supply chain, hundreds of tonnes of carbon … If I can help them [her corporate clients] move just three degrees, say, the impact of that is bigger than anything I could ever hope to have as an individual operating alone.”
Over her career, she’s worked with dozens of global firms, among them US modular flooring manufacturer Interface. Famous for its advocacy of cradle-to-cradle design thinking, in 2016 the company was close to achieving its long-standing goal of reducing its net environmental impact to zero. The question for Townsend and her colleagues was: how should the company communicate its ambitious next step?
With characteristic animation, Townsend describes holing up for two full days in Futerra’s London office (located in the city’s hip Clerkenwell district) with Interface’s chief executive Jay Gould. After much discussion and copious take-away pizza, they hashed a communications strategy for the tile manufacturer’s new Climate Take Back strategy. At this month's Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Gould announced Interface had lifted its ambition further and would be fully carbon-negative by 2040. (See America Inc goes all in for climate action at Jerry Brown's summit)
At the heart of the concept is the ambition to operate the business in a way that actually reverses global warming. Not only will its products use only carbon-negative raw materials by 2040, but Gould announced at GCAS a new commitment for the business itself to be carbon-negative by that date. As corporate campaigns go, it’s big, it’s bold and it’s stridently optimistic – three features that please Solitaire enormously.
If you don’t have a plan for activating your idea, it’s nothing more than an idea
“Solving climate change: it’s the kind of thing they [Interface] could say which nobody else could say,” she says. “And there’s no set date on it. The idea is to keep up with it until we get there.”
Impactful though such work can be, she isn’t wedded exclusively to working with the big guns of the business world. One of her other favourite recent projects, for example, was with a small Swedish firm called Food for Progress. Founded on progressive eco principles, its owners were looking for help in positioning a new vegan protein range called Oumph!.
The easy option would have been to cover the packaging with “smiling, skinny women” and flog it to Whole Foods, Solitaire says. Instead, Futerra pushed it to buck the market trend for plant-based foodstuffs and target a long-ignored segment of the market: namely, men.
It was a left-field idea, but it paid off. One of the first customers to snap up the soya-based snacks was a chain of sports’ bars. Soon after, Tesco came knocking. Today, the firm’s new planet-friendly brand is available in over 300 of the supermarket’s UK stores.
“For me, this is where Futerra really shines … Food for Progress is an incredibly ambitious business, so we decided to do something that actually reflects their boldness as a brand, and they have the guts to kind of go with that.”
Her final point is important. Ask any consultant what their greatest bugbear is and you can almost guarantee that the word “client” will crop up somewhere in their answer. Some ignore the advice that consultants provide. Others botch its implementation.
I’ll spend as much time going with my client contact to engage with the C-suite as I do coming up with the content
When it comes to corporate sustainability, client problems typically revolve more around issues of clout than competence. Most folk working in the field are passionate about effecting change, Solitaire notes. The majority are highly competent, too. As a general rule, however, sustainability professionals tend to sit fairly low down the pecking order. That means smaller budgets for paying consultants, and less influence when it comes to executing their advice.
Townsend’s response to this perennial dilemma is to identify who calls the shots internally and work hard on getting them on board as early as possible. She always looks to ask key decision-makers for their criteria for success. That way they can look back on a project at its completion and “see their fingerprints” on it from the outset, she explains.
“I’ll spend as much time going with my client contact to engage with the CMO [chief marketing officer], to engage with the CEO and so on, as I do coming up with the content. Because if you don’t have a plan for activating your idea, it’s nothing more than an idea.”
Important though decision-makers are, getting her foot in the C-Suite isn’t her sole goal. Effecting change in any organization is as much about tapping into people power as it is tapping up powerful people.
“Some of the stuff that I’ve done while visiting a farm or talking to somebody in a factory may make more of a difference in the world than when I’m talking to a CEO,” she notes.
Three thoughts are always at the front of her mind, regardless of who she’s talking to. The first is the primacy of her client. Wherever they may sit in the corporate hierarchy, they are the real change makers, she insists. Indeed, much of her job as a consultant rests on connecting ideas and information that they already know.
When it comes to corporate sustainability, Townsend argues, it is 'technically impossible to tweak'
For that reason, she is deeply uncomfortable with the image of management consultants as the “hero of the story”. She sees them more as a trusted right-hand man (or woman) or, to quote her own Star Wars analogy, more Obi-Wan Kenobi than Luke Skywalker.
Her second preoccupation centres on impact. Futerra’s co-founder has no interest in half-measures. The world’s sustainability challenges are too serious for that. Nor is she much motivated by helping organizations tweak this or that policy. When it comes to corporate sustainability, she argues, it is “technically impossible to tweak”.
By the same token, she is hyper-sensitive to the risk of greenwashing. In the early days, she had a good hold on the companies that walked through Futerra’s door and how serious they were about sustainability. As the agency has grown, it has become necessary to undertake some provisional due diligence before taking on a new client.
One of the benefits of running an independent consultancy, she says, is the ability to turn work down. “What’s absolutely crucial is that we don't just say ‘no’. We say, ‘No, instead you should do this.’ Or, ‘no, that needs to be better, so what we need to do is ...’.”
Townsend is unabashed about calling on the insights and expertise of her colleagues. Futerra is anything but a one-man band. From the start, her policy has been to employ people who are better than her at whatever it is she is employing them to do. And that includes managing her own company. (In 2009, she appointed Futerra’s then head of strategy Lucy Shea to replace her as chief executive).
Sustainability solutions need to meld strategic nous with kick-ass communications
All are singing off the same basic theory-of-change hymn sheet, however. To be authentic and effective, Solitaire theorises, sustainability solutions need to meld strategic nous with kick-ass communications. The first without the second leads to breakthrough ideas collecting digital dust on a sustainability director’s desktop. The flipside (ie communications without strategy) takes you back into greenwash territory.
Of course, Futerra doesn’t call it ‘strategy’ and ‘communications’. In true consultancy style, it brands its approach as a mix of ‘logic’ (centred around ‘vision’ and ‘maps’) and ‘magic’ (focused on ‘symbols’ and ‘stories’). The end point is still the same: you can’t have one without the other.
“We all have this ability to think very rationally, very practically, to think like an engineer, like a scientist, around what the logical steps are to create a change,” she explains, “But we're also these passionate, emotional, feeling creatures who are moved when we hear a speech or who can cry at a piece of art.”
Little surprise, then, that her favourite pastimes include visiting art galleries and reading the New Scientist. In her work life, she’s as keen on leading a creative brainstorm as she is discussing the mathematics of deforestation reversal.
“I'm not sure whether everyone would agree that I'm as good at both of them,” she admits, “but I will spend the whole rest of my life trying to be.”
CV: Solitaire Townsend
Chief Executive, Futerra
Chair, Green Energy Scheme
Founder. Sequoia Associates
Masters, Leadership for Sustainable Development, Middlesex University