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Observer Ethical Awards 2014: a look inside the ‘green Oscars’

Photo: Susan Maxwell via stock.xchng

Listing names as varied as Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley, Caroline Lucas and Lenny Henry among its winners, the Observer Ethical Awards are back for a ninth year.

Few events in the sustainability space can match the Observer Ethical Awards for impact. Nine years and eight ceremonies since their inception in 2005, the awards handed out have become some of the most influential in the green and ethical economy.

The likes of Colin Firth and his wife Livia regularly attend and, diaries permitting, are judges in 2014; Sir David Attenborough and Joanna Lumley are previous winners; and leading ethical retailer Ecover has sponsored the event since it began in 2006.

The brains behind the event is Lucy Siegle – a columnist with the Guardian and Observer and reporter on programmes like The One Show and Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. While in recent years her focus has been on sustainable and ethical fashion (she was appointed a visiting professor in the subject at University of the Arts London in 2008) the Observer Ethical Awards remain her baby, and she is returning this year to host the event again.

2014 brings with it new categories – including a community energy award, sponsored by National Grid. This will seek to reward communities that display real vision and aspiration in producing home-grown power.

Meanwhile, hardware chain B&Q has helped develop the Great Energy Race, a competition between 20 households across the UK to see which can save the most energy. The winner gets £10,000 to ‘future proof’ their home.

Sustainable fashion is also playing a greater role this year, with the event asking everyone – from big brands to individuals – to enter sustainable fashion pieces. These will be whittled down to a final six, which will be displayed as a collection on the night of the event.

Away from the new categories, delegates will get the opportunity to walk down a green carpet this year – fitting for an event often referred to as the ‘green Oscars’.

However, speaking to Blue & Green Tomorrow, Siegle explains that she hopes the 2014 event won’t be dramatically different, given the well-documented success of the previous eight years.

She says, “I was very taken – a few years ago – when the awards attracted the soubriquet of the ‘green Oscars’. At the risk of over emphasising this, just as the Oscars don’t reinvent every year I don’t want the awards to differ substantially.

If the awards night has even a fraction of the heart and emotion of last year’s, where the audience applauded Malala Yousafi for what seemed like forever and Lenny Henry gave an unbelieving moving speech about Comic Relief, I will be very pleased indeed.”

Lucy Siegle presenting at the South West Fairtrade Business Awards 2014. Photo: Jon Craig photography

Henry, a co-founder of Comic Relief with celebrated scriptwriter Richard Curtis, is just one of a whole host of famous faces to have picked up Ethical Awards over the years. Sir David Attenborough, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jane Goodall, Caroline Lucas and Joanna Lumley are among some of the others.

But while recognition of the work these celebrities have done is crucial in opening the Observer Ethical Awards up to the mainstream, its real attraction is its championing of the everyday people and businesses doing incredible things in sustainability.

There was a touching moment at the 2011 edition, for example. Speaking to Siegle after collecting an award for their bat and bird boxes, two students from Savio Salesian College in Merseyside were asked what they were going to do with the money.

Build more boxes. Expand. Go into Europe”, one replied. “Do what we can do. And help save the world.”

Siegle says, “I think [the awards have] retained the same heart and soul and the same celebratory feel that we began with and this is so important.”

The entries have become more nuanced and innovative as this market matures. We are world leaders in sustainability in the UK, and it’s important our categories reflect this. Ecover, our headline sponsor, is incredibly innovative so we always consult on tone, categories and actually spend a lot of time exploring how ecological and social justice thinking and research has changed and moved on.”

On paper, a connection between someone like Sir David Attenborough and a group of schoolchildren from Merseyside is remarkable. But Siegle believes all winners have at least one consistent attribute that connects them all: “They mean it and have the commitment to follow change through.”

Along with headline sponsor Ecover and category sponsors National Grid and B&Q, those supporting the Ethical Awards include Econyl, Virgin Holidays and Eco Age.

With financial sponsorship crucial in making the event not only happen but become a success, it would be easy for it to seek funding from firms simply in it for the reputational benefit. However, by opting instead for companies with clear and robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials or a defined sustainability benefit, they ensure the event’s good name isn’t tarnished.

Asked whether CSR has passed its sell-by date as a term, Siegle says, “No, because we are still dependent on non-responsible industries, like it or not. Would you sooner those industries did not change at all or made no attempt to ameliorate resource use or pollution?

CSR – done properly – can provide a level headed, strategic approach to change. It is also established enough to have its own culture and protocol that other elements of the business community, i.e. investors, have got to grips with and understand or feel comfortable with.

My problem with it comes when after many years a CSR strategy in a company is still tokenistic. The targets never increase and change can never be scaled in a company. This is sometimes deliberate (greenwashing) but sometimes down to a lack of vision and courage. At which [point] get some objective help from outside experts.”

Judges for the 2014 event, alongside Siegle, include the singer and model VV Brown, Guardian environment correspondent Damian Carrington, TV presenter Rick Edwards and the writer and adventurer Ben Fogle.

The closing date for nominations is March 21 and a shortlist will be drawn up in May. The event itself takes place at One Marylebone in London on June 11.

For more information, visit:

Further reading:

Nominations open for 2014 Observer Ethical Awards

Sustainability top priority for quarter of British small businesses

Why businesses must ‘shape and innovate’

We need more people with complete sustainability literacy

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013

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