A Conversation with Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra, the Leading Sustainable Communications Agency in the UK

 

Paul Skinner: Ed, for the benefit of our readers you co-founded Futerra, the leading Sustainable Communications agency in the UK which now also has offices in Stockholm and New York, where you have driven the creative direction of the agency since its inception.

You were recently appointed as a London Sustainable Development Commissioner and are a director of the carbon emissions campaigning organisation Sandbag.

You write regularly for the Guardian and we understand you are also working on a book about your experiences as a “slow traveller”, circumnavigating the globe without taking a single flight.

Ed, through Futerra you bring together a great deal of expertise in the overlap between communications, sustainable development and behavior change. Almost all of our causes are looking to change people’s behavior in some purpose-driven way. What would you pick out as your three top tips on behavior change, and what is the best example of behavior change in action you’ve seen so far in 2011?

Ed Gillespie: As we say at Futerra – behaviour change is a contact sport! You have to be prepared to get stuck in, get your hands dirty, people are complex beasties that must be treated with respect but there are three crucial factors that help generate effective behaviour change:

  1. Personal factors: changing habits, intervening with the correct incentives, motivations and drivers to influence specific behaviours. Key to this is creating a sense of ‘agency’. By this we mean the knowledge of what behaviour change is required, how to execute it and the desire to make this happen. Many of the problems with behaviour change for sustainability stem from creating a sense of fear without agency. This is fundamentally disempowering.
  2. Social factors: We are communal, communicative animals at heart and what other people are doing around us really matters. There are multiple unconscious, subconscious and intuitive influences that affect our behaviours all the time. We instinctively mirror and echo the behaviour of others – what psychologists call ‘social proof’.
  3. Infrastructure factors: Is the necessary access, facility or equipment in place to facilitate the behaviour change? How easy or simple is it to carry out?

These may seem like obvious avenues but when you align all three factors transformative behaviour change is not only possible – it almost becomes inevitable! My favourite example of recent years is the increase in cycling in London, which has been almost doubling year on year. You can see this is because of an alignment of the factors mentioned above. Personal factors* include saving money, faster travel, personal fitness and style/fashion trends (those East End ‘fixies’!), socially the sheer visibility and numbers of cyclists provides a salience and social proof for cycling that makes enormous sense and finally the infrastructure is improving with cycle superhighways, more bike lanes and the City Bike scheme which allows people to ‘experiment’ with free hire bikes. The combination of these factors leads to a possible culture change and that’s to be celebrated. Crucially people will cycle for their own reasons* not necessarily because it’s ‘good for the environment’. However, once they’re on the bike I suspect issues such as urban air quality and use of road space become more relevant and important to them.

Paul: We’ve been reading about your adventures on your year long trip travelling around the world without taking a single flight. Interested readers can discover how you got on here, but could you tell us in what ways that journey may have influenced your work since? Did the outer journey bring about any inner change?

Ed: Of course circumnavigating the globe without flying has ongoing and lasting personal impacts. It certainly ingrains a deep sense of patience and the notion that the ‘journey really is the reward’. I am still a keen slow, overland traveller, travelling to Ljublijana, Slovenia by train just last week for example to run some sustainability communications masterclasses. I find it a superior more satisfying way to travel which for me is very productive – my 180mph TGV ‘office’ is a very comfortable space to work in and lacks the multiple distractions of my normal desk!

It also changes the way you frame the world and the context of time. Most people say they would like to travel overland but it’s too expensive and takes too long. I think in many ways this is a misperception and time is all we really have, so why not lever a few more hours out of your life to enjoy the considered transition of landscape, people, culture and language that travelling in a more grounded fashion entails? It’s a richer, more rewarding experience and ultimately delivers you to your destination in a far more relaxed and ‘ready’ state than a twang on a budget airline!

Paul: One of the underlying thoughts behind Pimp My Cause is the belief that as mainstream marketers become increasingly required to respond to the needs of sustainable business and good corporate citizenship, one of the best ways for them to learn about creating social and environmental benefits can be by contributing their talent pro bono to a cause that serves a social or environmental mission they can feel inspired by – what advice would you give a marketer looking to develop their eco-credentials as they develop their career?

Ed: Well in essence for me it’s about ‘purpose’. What are you trying to, or hoping to achieve using your creative talents? Do you want to flog catfood or catalytic convertors?! We all seek some form of meaning in our professional and personal lives and I’m not sure there should be a divide between the two. Why should you leave your ‘real self’ at the door when you arrive at work? Surely we should be able to align our personal and professional values to help create a better world for everyone? In our experience as Futerrans it is this passionate belief that everything we do is contributing a positive impact to the world that motivates us. So my advice would be to ask yourself the tough question – ‘What is your own ‘why’?’, your purpose? And how best can you live that practically? Because when you do so it will likely make your career much happier and more productive. As our MD Jeff says ‘Work is a 3-letter word spelt J-O-Y!’.

Paul: Which of our member causes have you chosen to advise and why?

Ed: Well from a personal perspective it had to be Bikes to Rwanda as it combines several of my own passions: international development, coffee and cycling! I’m awanna-be-world-changing kind of guy with a caffeine habit and a Dutch bicycle (Futerra also has a pink tandem as our company vehicle!) so it was pretty much a no-brainer.

Paul: And what ideas or suggestions do you have for them?

Ed: I think this project has huge potential, especially as the coffee: cycling connection is so contemporary at the moment as demonstrated by the huge success of coffee/bike shops such as ‘Look Mum No Hands’ (www.lookmumnohands.com)  that does a roaring trade (and a great cup of coffee!) down the road from the Futerra office in London. I would look to establish the vital personal connections between coffee-loving cyclists and the Rwandan coffee-growers. For me, as I discuss in this recent talk I gave (virtually!) in Australia (http://www.futerra.co.uk/#go=stories-sizzle-salience-and-social-proof-6005) it’s all about the ‘Stories, Sizzle, Salience & Social Proof’. Bikes for Rwanda should concentrate on telling the compelling, personal stories and narratives of the individual workers they help/supply with bicycles, those who repair the bikes in the field and the crucial role they play in the coffee production process as a whole. Who is bringing that fantastic roasted Rwandan coffee to your grinder and ultimately cup? Why is this exciting or cool, what difference does it make to their lives, life on the coffee farm generally, the coffee steaming in front of you? How can the whole coffee journey be brought to life, visibly in people’s minds, using images, films, faces, smiles and families of the beneficiaries of the programme? How can you label coffee drinkers aspublic supporters, endorsers and advocates of the project? There is a wonderful circularity to the both the cycling connections and the coffee cycle itself – it makes total sense in the context of ‘Bikes to Rwanda’s’ core business and mission to capitalize on this…and I’d love to meet and talk with them further to help explore how we might make this happen.

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