Five minutes with... Solitaire Townsend, Futerra

The co-founder of the sustainability-focused 'change agency' says a little optimism can make all the difference.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 30 Nov 2017

In 2001, Solitaire Townsend co-founded change agency Futerra with Ed Gillespie, and currently has offices in London, Stockholm and New York. Focussed on ‘on changing sustainability imperatives into entrepreneurial opportunity,’ the company creates branding, consumer campaigns, strategy and behavioral change in the field of sustainability. Clients have included Mondelez, Sky, and Unilever.

Townsend chatted with MT about her time in business and why any change must come from a position of hope.

What was the hardest thing about the first year of Futurra?

The hardest part of setting up a business is self belief. Everything else you can learn online, you get advice on, you can put the work into. All of that actually isn't hard, it's just hard work. Hard work is fine.

What is hard is continuing to believe in yourself. No website, book or business guru is going to give you that, it comes from the inside. I suspect in the first year, most businesses fail because their founders give up. Massive waves of impostor syndrome of ‘who am I to do this’, ‘I'm making a fool of myself’, ‘this is never going to work’ all washed over me at the beginning. And then there was the reception we got from the outside world, 'you guys should have spent more time working in business’, ‘you're too young to set this up, you're embarrassing yourself’. That was all really hard.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from your business mistakes?

It took us years to properly invest in outstanding experts in their field. The temptation as a founder is to do it all, both the bits you're exceptional at and the bits you're competent at. What I'd say is my biggest learning is as soon as humanly possible, hire someone to do outstandingly the things you are only competent at. As soon as we did that, Futerra took off.

What made it so difficult to hire early on?

I was fearful that I'd make a promise to someone of a salary and a business which maybe we wouldn't be able to reach. Someone left a high paying corporate job to come and work with me. What if we went bust in six months time? Of course the irony is that every time I've done it, actually the person who has come in has made it easier to keep the promises because they've helped to further our business.

When did things start to click for your business?

We won a big campaign to create a communications strategy for the first UK government climate change communications plan in 2005, after a couple of years where we’d been slowly building up. We were up against the big advertising agencies and no one could believe that we'd won it. The reason was because our approach to this whole social and environmental purpose was to focus on the solution rather than the problem. Whenever anyone talks about sustainability, climate change,water, poverty or inequality, they always focus on the problem and the negativity.

Optimists are focused on the solution and the fact that everything we have to do to solve these big problems, we should want to do because they're great for our health and wellbeing They're also good for business. We should save the world because it’s good for us not because it's a problem.

What's the favourite thing about your job?

Creating this positive future is the number one most exciting thing in the world today. It's more exciting than all that is happening in technology because it’s the biggest most purposeful thing that you can do right now. It is an incredible privilege to work with 60 other people worldwide who also have that burning passion and energy for positive change. To walk into your office every morning and to just feel that is an incredible privilege.

I also like surprising people with the fact that it's OK to enjoy, to be rewarded, to make money and to be happy from sustainability. Whether it's with our corporate clients, the public or government, they’re all surprised that sustainability doesn't have to hurt. I feel like I'm the good news fairy, that I basically wander around the world and tell people that sustainability can be good for them and for business...everyone's always happy to see me!

What does a better future actually look like?

One of the issues I'm more interested in is not just technical proof points that a sustainable world is a more productive, healthier happier world. It's about how sustainability affects you as an individual. Many of us right now feel extremely overwhelmed, we feel very unsure of what to do. We're quite afraid, we worry about our own health, everything from climate climate change to the plastic pollution in Blue Planet to whether we're safe to walk down our street and that we're doing the right thing with our lives.

For me, the sustainable future is where we stop worrying and start acting. We know from research is that the very best way to be happier to be healthier, to feel safer, more confident and less worried and overwhelmed is if we actually take action to make a better world. So for me, a better future is one where we feel better as well as technically doing everything better.

I would like people to know that what they do makes a difference in the world around them. 

Why should we believe that change is possible?

In my 20 year career in sustainability, I've seen such amazing things happen. We are repairing the ozone layer because of a worldwide action from businesses, individuals, and governments. We're able to take that really serious threat of the growing ozone hole and actually transform a whole set of industries so that it is now repairing itself. That is a very specific example, but what keeps me going isn't necessarily about renewables or the fact that when I was born in 1974, worldwide literacy has doubled.

What actually keeps me going is that every visionmaker, every changemaker throughout history has known you've got to be optimistic.

The Mandelas, Reverend Dr.King’s, to Churchill: so many generations before us have faced their own great challenges, and they overcame them with optimism and hope. Why should we think we're any different?

This year, it's often been quite difficult to feel optimistic.

When President Trump announced that he would seek to remove the USA from the Paris agreement, it was quite a worry for a lot of people. However, what that statement did is it got a whole load of companies and countries off the fence. You've got this huge movement in the US now called ‘we're still in,’ with major firms like Google and Apple all the way through to Tiffany's the jewelry company coming out with their own significant commitments towards climate change.

Of course, it was never going to be the president who took action climate change, it was always going to be the businesses and the states and the cities that did it it. So even when something really negative like that happens it often generates a massive positive... I’m very much a silver lining sort of person.

The Happy Hero by Solitaire Townsend is published by Unbound.

Photo Credit: Lisa Hamilton, Futerra


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