My Green Life
The Dragons’ Den businesswoman and Campaign Ambassador for Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign Deborah Meaden talks to Sharon Garfinkel.
What does Nature teach you?
Nature teaches us that whilst we might think we’re in control of everything, we’re not. It teaches balance, and I always say the answer to everything is balance. If we all rush into biofuels, that gets out of balance and that causes a problem. If we can learn one thing from Nature, it is that balance is paramount.
Why do you care about sustainability?
To me, it’s so obvious. Who doesn’t want the things that they love to last forever? Everyone cares about sustainability, whatever it means to them. Sustainability isn’t just about green issues. Can we behave this way forever, or is our behaviour bringing about our own demise? The concept tends to have been owned by the whole green movement, but I just think it is common sense. In the world of business, this is how I live. I wouldn’t make a decision today that I knew was going to lead to the demise of my business, so why would I make a decision that would lead to the demise of my planet?
What one piece of legislation would you introduce to positively impact on climate change?
I don’t think it’s legislative. The answer is education. As long as we treat climate separately, we’ve got a problem. It’s not a subject. It’s the way we should live our lives. You can’t legislate thought but you can educate the thinking. Sometimes legislation can hinder because people just ‘park it over there’ and think we’ve done the minimum to comply with the legislation so that’s OK now – I’ve done my bit. But that’s not OK. Legislation should be the bare minimum. We should behave better than that. I’m not convinced that governments can legislate, but I do think they can create an environment that encourages people to behave in a more sustainable way.
Which political party does the most for the environment?
From the government, actions speak louder than words. I expect to be able to talk about the environment; I expect my government to listen and then do something about it. I don’t expect them to just carry on talking about it. I’m not convinced that any of the parties have got it right. I’m pretty apolitical and not aligned to any party – whichever party is talking sense to me will get my vote.
How well do you think the government is dealing with green issues?
I think they’re really confused. The debacle over the solar power feed-in tariff was unbelievable. They took a good thing and totally ruined it. This is about jobs, investing in renewables, trust in the government. It was a disaster and if they can get something that big so horribly wrong, it worries me about any other initiative. It’s not joined up. They had the solar thing, they broke it and now they’re allowing fracking. How can the same government be having these conversations? It’s all a little bit random. I was part of the Green is Working action group that gathered outside the Treasury along with good solid people including WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Women’s Institute and a lot of big businesses, saying to the government, stop treating greens as raving loonies and start realising it’s a genuine issue and one big businesses are really paying attention to. It got picked up and gave us a really good voice.
Who has done the most to put climate change at the top of the agenda?
I think Al Gore was pretty impressive. He didn’t do it for the fame and glory. But he went around America telling people to pay attention. Whether people believed him or not, he definitely put the debate out there. Prince Charles has also done a lot. He was vilified for all the things we all now take as read such as climate change. He was saying this 25, 30 years ago. He stuck to his guns and should be recognised for the fact that he did not waver even under the extreme pressure of everyone saying, “You’re mad.”
Nuclear power, or renewable energy?
I am Campaign Ambassador for Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy Campaign, which is about getting people to switch to renewable energy, so not surprisingly I would say renewable energy, but I do understand there might be a part for nuclear power to play in the transition. It’s not like, “Stop it now.” It feels to me that we should obviously be investing in a renewable energy source. Why would you throw a load of money investing in an energy source that we know is going to run out, or we know has got catastrophe written all over it? So of course we should be investing in renewable energies, but there is a transition and we’ve got to be pragmatic about it.
Natural seeds, or GM?
Every bone in my body says natural, but I’m also an ambassador for WWF, and they have these wonderful debates and presentations to make sure we have a rounded understanding of certain issues, one of which was to have a debate between GM and non-GM. I came out thinking I genuinely don’t know which side I believe in, because I think Nature is a lot smarter than I am, but then I also understood, with the population growth we’re going to face, that GM could mean there is less pressure placed on land grabs and tearing out trees to put in plantations. So actually GM crops probably have a part to play. Nature knows best but we’re putting too much pressure on Nature. I worry about the animals. The more land we grab, the more Indigenous people struggle, the more the land struggles, the more plant species struggle, the more animals struggle, so maybe GM can hold that back a bit.
How do you support the sustainability agenda from your position?
I talk about it – and I can get on a rant about it. Every now and then I’ll be talking at a dinner party and will notice that everyone’s gone quiet. My husband will say: “Shut up, Deborah. That’s enough.” I used to say actions speak louder than words, and often they do, but I’ve also learnt that, thanks to the power of social media, governments are now having to listen. There’s a massive collective voice out there and if we talk about it enough, governments have to listen and it does get on the agenda and things do get changed. Whenever I can, I can use my profile which gives me a voice to talk about these things.
What can we as individuals do to make a difference?
I urge everybody to talk about sustainability – even simple things like asking a restaurant: “Where did this food come from?” If you’re buying a takeaway, asking if the packaging is recyclable. Every time you make a decision in business, ask yourself: “How can I make this in a more sustainable way?” So, I think, talking about it and getting it onto your own agenda. We were putting up some fencing at our house and I said to my husband that whatever they’re putting on that wood to make it last 25 years cannot be good for us, and suddenly I’m saying I don’t want any treated timber. It’s got to be oak from sustainable sources. I use environmentally friendly taxi services in London. I’ll sit on a train and tell people why I use them. Before you know it, you’ve got an effect going on.
What do you think needs to happen to bring the environmental movement together to act and speak as one voice? Do you think greens need to shake up, and if so, how?
I think greens need to stop calling themselves greens. Everybody has an image of a green individual and I don’t think I am of that ilk. I think that makes me more powerful, because people have not put me in that compartment. When I speak they listen in a different way. There isn’t really a debate over behaving well and behaving badly. Even if the planet is going to survive, do we want to live in a concrete jungle and have all these food insecurity issues and poverty? Behaving well is the issue and as long as it’s wrapped up in this separate green issue, it’s not going to be accepted by the mainstream. So we need to engage a little bit more and say ‘green’ less often.
Sustainability is common-sense behaviour. It’s what we should all be doing. It just needs that common voice that says that this is what we’re talking about.