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Future sustainability leaders: Rebecca Trevalyan



What will business look like in the future and who are our future leaders?

We started a new feature last week, speaking with a group of young people who are making waves in sustainability. All 12 are scholars on Forum for the Future’s renowned master’s course in leadership for sustainable development.

Rebecca Trevalyan, who is currently on placement with Gen Community, is up next to tell us about her ambitions.

Tell us about your experience on the Forum for the Future master’s course. What have your placements involved?

Six weeks at Innocent’s Fruit Towers was a thrilling insight into the fast-paced food and drink industry. I spent days tramping around apple orchards, interviewing top fruit experts from across Europe and drinking rather a lot of juice. A visit from Bill Clinton was undoubtedly a highlight, too.

My second placement was at construction giant Carillion, where I donned a hard hat and steel-capped boots for a tour of its new development at Battersea Power Station.

Next up was international thinktank IIED, where I learned all about the energy needs of smallholder farmers – and had a sneak preview into the lofty corridors of power.

Finally, I project managed a share offer for a community energy project in the Orkneys at alternative finance start-up Gen Community. After a few days spent furiously reading Investopedia, I started to feel a little more versed in the world of finance.

Where does your interest in sustainability come from?

I was born and raised in a little patch of countryside in Lancashire – that early menu of mud pies must have given me a taste of looking after the big outdoors. During my undergraduate days, I worked with a variety of social enterprises, and was convinced that a profit-for-purpose model could be the answer to many of our challenges today.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given during your course?

At the start of the course, a lecturer warned that some people are prone to burn out in sustainability. The size of the issues faced and the seemingly universal resistance to change can be overwhelming. Surround yourself with positive people, he said, and don’t dwell too much on the bad news. The principles of the League of Pragmatic Optimists strike me as a wise approach to maximising personal resilience and achievement in the field.

What’s most important business lesson you’ve learnt?

Learn to speak the language of the organisation or sector you want to persuade. It’s unlikely you’ll change a bank’s investment portfolio by dressing in hemp and talking about the birds.

What one idea do you think could change the world for the better?

Investment in social enterprise and an acceptance that profits will not be short-term. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth points out that our current capitalist system depends on constant growth to maintain a given level of employment – due to year-on-year efficiency gains in labour productivity. Jackson suggests that, in order to slow down resource depletion and climate change, we need to move towards what he calls ‘dematerialised services’ – because the human input is the value in them.

We need to fund growth in sectors like sport centres, local repair services, performing arts, community energy, slow food co-operatives – which may have a longer return on investment (ROI) than FTSE 100 investments, for example.

What do you see of the future in terms of sustainability, business and the environment?

I think businesses are waking up to the idea that developing sustainable practices and supply chains is the only option. Given likely future price rises in energy and commodities, the successful players in 2020 and beyond will be the businesses blazing the trails now.

Where will you be in 10 years’ time?

Having founded several community-based social enterprises, I will be co-ordinating a whole network of them, helping them to scale by connecting them to the newly mainstreamed ethical finance sector.

Further reading:

Future sustainability leaders: Sam Gillick

Future sustainability leaders: Patrick Elf

21st century leadership: from business as usual to business as a force for good

The business case for sustainability – an exceptional Forum for the Future event

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013