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Meet Rob Holdway

Eco expert Rob Holdway describes his role as ‘designing out waste’ and he advises global companies how to be green. at home picks his brain on all things eco…

Rob Holdway, one of the UK’s leading eco experts, is best known for presenting the Channel 4 reality show Dumped, in which 11 unsuspecting people were parked on a landfill site and left to forage to survive.

A product designer by trade and formerly a research fellow at the prestigious Royal College of Art, Rob was the project director for the seven metre-high WEEE man (waste electrical and electronic equipment) sculpture now on permanent display at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

He is a member of the judging panel for The Observer Ethical Awards, and is one of eight government representatives advising UK businesses on eco issues. He has also recently been appointed a London Leader 4by the London Sustainable Development Commission.

Day-to-day Rob runs his consultancy, Giraffe Innovation.

Its premise is simple: to make green issues palatable and financially viable to business. And its client list includes some of the biggest companies around the world, including Dell, British Airways and L’Oreal. Advising them on how to make their businesses and products more environmentally friendly, while improving sales and saving cash, lies at the heart of Rob’s conviction that: ‘making a profit doesn’t have to cost the earth’.

Giraffe’s unique approach helps its clients avoid ‘greenwashing’ as they are taught to back up claims with science, showing how the changes they implement will make a profound difference to their company and the environment.

What made you become interested in the environment and green issues? In the early 90s I was working as a designer for Philips on the design of Hi-Fi systems. I was briefed to think not just about how the product looks and works but the environmental impact of my designs. I saw the environment as an opportunity to be creative and not a tiresome constraint that should be ignored. I realised that designers can be powerful in influencing trends and consumer behaviour and also potentially very dangerous in designing products without regard for their impact on the environment. Many designers used to view eco designs as inferior, somehow. But there’s no point making eco products if they don’t work well and don’t look good.

Many environmentalists used to irritate me by suggesting business and consumers should be somewhere else. But we can’t be somewhere else. We have to start from where we are. For obvious reasons its hard to stick to what you don’t know. I always wanted to work with companies and influence change from within.

My approach is a pragmatic one. In all my work I use the environment as a way of being more efficient and saving money. My company, Giraffe has identified savings of over £75 million for our clients.

I am now getting more involved in media work. Environmental information tends to vary in quality and consistency – particularly in the media. My articles and contribution in this issue of at home focus on the cost savings and environmental benefits that go hand in hand. This is why I got involved in Channel 4′s Dumped – I was trying to give sound environmental information and present the opportunities to all of us.

We often think that small changes won’t make a difference, but they really do. Energy-saving changes can save you money, too, so even if you don’t care about the environment particularly, what you do on a daily basis will make a difference to you financially and that in itself, should be a big incentive for people.

How did Dumped come about and was that the first television you’d done? I had done loads of interviews for the radio and TV around the world, but never presented a programme before. Dumped was a great platform to express my opinion to a large audience. It was also a chance to change the minds of people who were taking part in the programme, and it certainly did that.

I get annoyed when reporters still travel to far off places to see the effects of climate change because this is too abstract. Ecology starts with us, at home, in the daily decisions we make about how we live. Dumped was a powerful programme because it showed us that there is no such place as ‘away’. When you throw something ‘away’ it is likely to end up in a hole in the ground for the next thousand years. This is a bizarre thing to do, considering much of this material is worth cash and can be recovered and recycled. Moreover, we are running out of raw materials and holes in the ground for our waste.

Our way of life has far-reaching consequences affecting the rainforests globally, the ecological system and the environment. The programme showed how small changes at home can have a positive impact globally.

At one stage, one of the contributors on Dumped complained they were being given too much stuff. But I pointed out that it is possible to live in relative luxury, living off other peoples waste – that’s the point.

As a country we each waste £424 per year, throwing away food that we don’t eat and as it rots it gives off high levels of methane and contributes to global warming. The crazy way we produce and consume products means 20-30% of species will be extinct by 2050 because of deforestation, rising temperatures and changing migration patterns. The natural habitat of the orang-utan could be gone within 10 years!

What do you do personally to ensure your life is green? I usually cycle along Brighton’s seafront to work every day or get the train if I’m going further afield. Most journeys people take are less than five miles so finding alternatives to driving is possible. For my honeymoon last year I took the Eurostar to Paris and went InterRailing around Italy.

At work, instead of flying to see clients, we try to use Skype and teleconference to conduct meetings. Sometimes you can’t avoid flying – I have just returned from Korea where I gave a talk at the National Design Olympiad. Obviously, if I can help them change their culture on eco issues then it’s worth the flight.

Everything I can, I recycle, and a lot of our food waste goes into a wormery in the garden. We use the compost on our tomatoes. I live in a Victorian house so it hasn’t been easy to adapt the building itself, but our loft is fully insulated, we only use hot water and heating when it’s completely necessary and we use energy efficient light bulbs.

Do you think that people are finally becoming more aware of the issues? You don’t have to give up your lifestyle completely to make a difference and the key is not to make people feel guilty for everything. For me, incentive schemes work much better – for example you can use Tesco Clubcard points towards their eco-schemes or Sainsbury’s Nectar card if you bring in their own bags when you are shopping. People are recycling more but there needs to be a nationwide recycling system because councils differ on what they will take and it can become confusing.

People are far more discriminating when they buy products now and many are choosing to buy eco-friendly items. However, there is still a lot of nimbyism (not in my back yard). Some people profess to care about the environment but don’t want a wind turbine in their area.

What about bio-fuels – what are they and are they a good thing? We clearly have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and biofuels are one alternative. A biofuel is a fossil fuel substitute produced from plant materials such as wheat, sugar and oilseeds. The CO2 emitted from their use is reabsorbed by the plants grown to provide the next batch of fuel.

The major concerns over their use are the threat of increased food prices and decreased food production if farmers produce fuel crops in place of food, as well as deforestation to clear space for crops. Biofuels have the potential to reduce our environmental impact, but they must be used in the right way. It is estimated that our oil supplies will run out in as little as 65 years, so biofuels seem the best alternative currently available.

Which big businesses do you think are embracing the cause and doing a good job? Ecover has just won an Observer Ethical Award. Ecover not only looks at the products it sells and makes them as environmentally friendly as possible, but it also looks at the factories where the products are produced and the whole supply chain. Lush (a beauty product company), looked at the notion of shampoo bottles and decided they didn’t need them, and they sell all their products with very little packaging.

Of all the supermarkets, Sainsbury’s has been working hard in subtle ways, especially with their packaging and have not shouted about what they are doing behind the scenes as much as the others.

Do you think that some businesses are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to make money from pretending to be green? Three or four big companies have claimed they are carbon neutral but this simply can’t be true because measuring this is extremely complex, unless the companies are willing to pay millions of pounds to offset their emissions.

Often these companies look just at the emissions from their operations and not those from their products. But often it is the product itself that produces a massive carbon footprint.

Green issues are becoming increasingly fashionable and certain celebrities are opening shops and building eco-friendly houses to live in, for example.

Do you think stars embracing the cause helps to spread the word? It definitely does help because people look up to celebrities and their position of fame, and want to emulate them. But some of them spout a lot of greenwash when in actual fact they take about 50 flights a year and live in a massive energy-wasting house. But if a celeb can help someone take even a small step to being greener, then it does help the cause.

How can Mr and Mrs Average make a difference to the environment? We have to start with the basics. Clearly, it’s best to reduce the amount we consume in the first place – whether that’s emissions from our homes, travelling or materials put in the bin.
Then recycling is key – make sure that whatever you are able to recycle you do, whether it’s cans, plastics, paper, bottles. If your council doesn’t take certain items then make that journey to your local recycling banks, but team it with another task so you are not wasting energy through burning fuel.

Organic fruit and vegetable boxes are environmentally friendly and the food is locally sourced so they’re worth investing in – what’s more, it tastes much better, too.

If you are taking journeys that are less then five miles, use your bike or walk – school runs are a nightmare for this because they waste so much energy. It’s much better for your children to walk, too, as they are getting regular exercise.

If you have to fly then offset the emissions. Giraffe has just launched a carbon offsetting scheme called OPE (One Planet Economy) which helps small scale farmers re-forest Sri Lanka’s rainforest remnants. You can go to www.oneplaneteconomy.com and type in your journey details and it will tell you how much carbon is emitted and the cost to offset.

By far the simplest thing to do to save energy is to insulate your home properly and switch your energy supplier to a green one, which uses renewable resources. According to www.green.energyhelpline.com, by switching to a green energy tariff, all of us could each save two tonnes of CO2 a year.

A lot of people are saying what is the point of doing anything when China and India are pumping emissions into the atmosphere and are not going to stop. Is this a justified argument? In an attempt to reduce poverty, countries such as China and India are indeed increasing their use of coal for energy. But despite this, the Chinese and Indian populations produce less CO2 emissions per person than you may expect. Each person in the world is responsible for an average 4.6 tonnes CO2 a year. In China, each person produces 4.2 tonnes and the average Indian just 1.4 tonnes.

Compare that to the massive 12 tonnes we each produce here in Britain or the staggering 20.2 tonnes from every American! So perhaps it’s reasonable for China and India to increase emissions in order to improve living standards. And this should not deter us from decreasing our emissions. In fact, if the whole of Europe were to ban incandescent light bulbs in favour of energy efficient versions we would reduce our emissions enough to counteract two years of coal fired power station growth in China. After all, we started the industrial revolution – maybe we should also lead the environmental revolution.


Photographs: www.janesharp.com


Written by Georgina Maric
Photographs: www.janesharp.com
First Published in At Home with Rob Holdway,November 2008

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