Green.org sat down with Sara Turnbull, Director, and Jeannette Pearce MBE, Non-Executive Director of Work Wild, to share how they are building organizations spurred by social missions.
Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
We are work activists and wild advocates.
Many would label us entrepreneurs – social and even serial entrepreneurs. But mostly we are just workers who love doing what we do. And what we love to do is run great organisations spurred by social missions and packed with empowered people. We are deeply passionate about the social and economic change that comes when you get small businesses and charities working in their communities.
We, Sara and JP, first met in 2014 across a boardroom table at City Hall in London. Not knowing one another, we were each surprised to hear the other introduce themselves at the table in the same way: ‘I help businesses be more social and charities be more enterprising.’
Over our combined 55 years of work, we’ve run bars, markets, charities and creative businesses and been cleaners, waitresses (sadly not in a cocktail bar) and chief executives. We’ve rigged lights, designed scenery and made lots of stuff with our hands. We’ve provoked, supported and collaborated across the public, private and third sectors, creating strategies and impact through our work for government, housing associations, global brands, railways, mayors, fintech masterminds, rock bands, cultural icons, landowners, forests and farmers. We’ve managed venues, run global marketing accounts, established and grown social enterprises, led sustainability strategies for cities, and run social and creative workspaces. Between us we’ve mentored and supported around 1,200 entrepreneurs, businesses, charities and social enterprises through all stages of development.
Our enterprise training, cultural events and community engagement programs have reached more than 50,000 people and made a significant social impact. Overall, we have led and managed organizations that have generated in excess of £10m turnover. Most importantly, by moving through lots of industries and roles, we have carved careers for ourselves that allow us to address the social and environmental issues we are passionate about. We have shaped roles and created wealth in the broadest sense for ourselves, others, the communities we share and the environment in which we all live.
What is a fun fact about you?
Doing all of this hasn’t always been easy and we haven’t always been easy on ourselves (or others) when doing it. We have felt knackered, thrilled, passionate, challenged and, at times, it seemed we were running solely on adrenaline as we came close to workaholism and burnout. Seeing ourselves and others do this, we’ve learned that how you work is as important as why and where you work.
We think that work is broken and that fixing the way we all work is the secret to unlocking the significant shift in attitudes, behaviour and infrastructure needed to address climate change.
We want work to work for everyone and created a set of resources to help individuals and organisations restructure the way they operate to enable this. We think work is broken and offer Working Wild as an antidote. Working Wild is a way of working that makes us all better off. Its an approach that lets you and your team be they colleagues, employees or employers be more human, engage deeply with others and reconnect to the natural world through work. It brings you joy and doesn’t exhaust you, others or the environment, while enabling collective success that respects environmental limits and human needs in ways that current ways of working and traditionally narrow definitions of success do not.
Put simply, we want work to be better.
When we say we ‘want work to be better’, we are talking from hard experience. We’ve slept under our desks and very nearly been crushed by the volume of work and our approach to it. At those times we longed for and we’re refueled by trips to wild mountains and beaches. Driving wind, heavy rain and cold water healed our pain. We know it isn’t just us. We’ve both seen colleagues, friends and family give themselves up in the name of ‘a career’, ‘success’ and ‘progress’. By knowing first-hand how easily things can go wrong, we’ve been able to draw on our hard-won experience to build the strategies we call Working Wild.
Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?
For the first time everyone across the globe is looking at how, where and why we work as the world emerges from lockdowns and significant shifts to learn to live with covid. This is a critical point in the history of work. The choices we all make today about the future of work affect transport, health, happiness and ultimately determine whether we emerge into a just future where we successfully mitigate climate change or… well the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
To take a look back at the history of work and how we got to where we were before the pandemic… In the 19th and 20th centuries, most people’s places of work moved from kitchens, houses, workshops, barns, fields and communities to factories and then offices, distribution centres and call centres. Simultaneously, work changed from being mostly self-determined – historically, many skilled workers worked for themselves and came together with local traders with similar skills through guilds – to something carried out from a position five layers deep in a management hierarchy.
So complete a transformation has this been that today 84 per cent of UK workers are employees, with more than 70 per cent of businesses defined as corporate. Just four per cent of employers in the UK are not-for-profit or part of the government.
Yes, there is an increase in alternatives – “slashies” and freelancers, social enterprises and purpose-driven organizations, co-working and community-focused workspaces. But, overall, most people in paid work in the UK now work for organizations compelled by their legal structures to make and distribute profit to external shareholders, while only a minority of people work actively to distribute rather than accumulate wealth.
The effects of this have been catastrophic. With most jobs and most work now operating according to an entirely industrial formula, we have seen wealth gaps expand and biodiversity shrink while corporations, whose wealth exceeds that of many nations, carry out ecocide in the name of business as usual. It’s quite simple. By being complicit in an economic system founded on growth and success at any cost – a system that externalises the true costs to companies of their impact on people and the environment – we are exhausting our natural as well as social capital. Just imagine: business and industry are responsible for more than 18 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions and 32 million tonnes of waste on an annual basis.
The result? A dehumanizing system that reduces many of us to being cogs in the machine, disconnected from who we really are in the midst of a toxic and exhausted environment. A system in which nature, just like us, has been reduced to a resource to be used. This leads us not just to climate change, the single biggest threat to all life on our planet, but also to the following significant crises:
1. Climate Change: Can we survive extinction? The need for a stable climate and resilience at the personal, local, national and international level in the face of rising sea levels, droughts, floods, climate migration, etc.
2. Speed of Change: Can we beat the robots or will we join them? Technology is accelerating beyond anything experienced before. As artificial intelligence, biotech and IT develop, how can we keep up with the changes and retain our humanity?
3. Biodiversity & Food Security: How and what will we eat? The significant and unprecedented loss of biodiversity has profound impacts for the food chain. The loss of pollinators for food crops is of particular concern and threatens human food security with significant health impacts.
4. Disconnection: Will we ever feel whole and part of something again? The extreme isolation and insulation from one’s true self and others caused by distance, distraction, geography and technology. Increasing isolation from our place in the natural world.
5. Common Story: What is our future and is there a place in it for me? The lack of a clear vision for society on a national or international level that addresses the crises above and the myriad other issues facing humanity in a common, positive story.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
We believe work is broken and offer Working Wild as an antidote. Working Wild is for everyone who has finished a day exhausted, frustrated and feeling poorer for it. It’s for anyone with an inkling that working life doesn’t have to be this way. And for anyone who doesn’t want work to estrange us from our better selves, from others and from nature.
We need a radical rethink of our entire relationship with work and the wild.
Let’s start with ‘wild’ – a word that means many things to many people. For many it conjures up the remote, the uninhabited, the uncultivated powers of the natural world. It’s adventure and the great outdoors: wide open spaces, devastating beauty and desolate expanses of land.
But for us, wild is so much more than that.
Wild is a natural state: not tamed or domesticated.
To be wild can also be to lack reason… like taking the ‘wildest of guesses’. It can drench us in fantasy through our wildest and most unimaginable dreams. Wild permits us to grow unkempt and unchecked like a rambling plant or when we run wild with reckless abandon. We can be wild about music, food, hobbies or sport and less than wild about Brussels sprouts or our friend’s new lover.
We can be the alternative, the outsider, the unpredictably maverick wild card. Wild can find us irrational, riotous, extravagant or rash and stir in us the strongest emotions, leaving us anger fuelled with wide, wide eyes and a temper flipped. It can also shake o! discipline and restraint, indulging us in the wildest of parties.
For us, then, when we say wild, we essentially mean free, honest, interconnected and at our most creative. Nature thrives when it is left wild to find its own way and we, like everything in nature, thrive when we have space to grow and are part of a greater whole. Wild is when we are not bogged down by belongings but focus instead on belonging. Belonging to that greater whole of nature.
Sadly so much of modern work is the antithesis of wild.
Work traditionally fences us in and we’ve been complicit in allowing it to – searching for ourselves in our achievements, to-do lists and promotions. We now battle to know ourselves in our life and work, lost in a constant stream of emails, messages and status updates that create new digital fences.
But the wild resists fences – connecting to your wildness will help you find joy by climbing over or levelling fences in your (work) life.
Which is why we are advocating not just for the wild but Working Wild – a total and radical rethink of the system of work that addresses its broken elements.
Of course, if being truly wild is to be truly free, then a huge part of Working Wild is to re-wild the self by allowing you to be as natural and true to yourself as possible in your work role. In Feral, George Monbiot describes how he found in himself ‘an unmet need for a wilder life … scratching at the walls of this life, hoping to find a way into a wider space beyond.’
We need to bring that sense of a wider space into our closed, fenced-in workplaces. We must enable our souls to speak and create with honesty and authenticity in our working as well as our personal lives. We must drop the roles we play at work and bring all the rainbow shades of our true selves to work with us. And we need to remember to give ourselves – and those we love and work with – the permission to be who they are, wherever they are, while reminding ourselves above all that as Dr Seuss said ‘No one is more youer than you.’
Join leaders in renewable energy, sustainability, and cleantech at The Fall 2022 Green Summit by registering here.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
Whether your work role requires you to wear a uniform or pearls, work shifts or rule the roost, you are quite probably thinking: ‘How possible is this?’ But the true question is: ‘What is the cost of not trying?’
Quite simply, we need to be alone and with ourselves. We need to connect deeply with all aspects of ourselves. Whether we do this first at home, in the prayer room or on a long mountain trek, rewilding the self is about reconnecting to the wild in you.
For many of us, that may mean using nature and time outdoors to refresh ourselves with a change of scenery. Most of us need to get outdoors in the elements – and in our element – to truly feel ourselves. (For us it’s water, mountains and forests.) It is here that things are stripped back to the essentials so we can hear our true selves; not our panicked, stressed or striving selves. It is here that we can meet the wild within. We can connect again to our true selves by reconnecting to the natural world and our place in it. We can reconnect to awe and see ourselves as stewards and creatures in a complex and extraordinary world.
Ultimately, by going not just into nature but into the self and into the wild and messy bits of both, we can pay attention to our intuition: a huge stockpile of data and observations we can access rapidly to make sound judgments about the best thing to do. That’s when we can stand strong and reconnect with each other. As educator Kurt Hahn put it: ‘There is more in you than you know.’ Recognising this is what lets you take the next step, confident in your ability to choose the company you keep. Being in good company is a no-brainer: who wouldn’t want to be among the best of friends, in a happy family or a cooperative and collaborative workplace? But how many of us really are?
Fundamentally, as an employee you are often only able to decide the quality and character of the company you choose to work for and the company of your co-workers. Those of you who own, lead, manage or hold shares in any organisation can do even more. You can influence and create good companies by improving the quality and character of the team and the work culture, the products and services, the quality of the pay and conditions and the leadership and management style. You might do it by aligning the purpose and impact of your organisation with issues and groups you care about, or by supporting individuals to create, self-manage, develop and grow.
You know you are in good company when you are allowed to be human. Any company that links you to your environment and the people around you or the causes you care about will ultimately give you the cosy feeling of being in good company while nurturing the wildest version of you.
We’ve been Working Wild ourselves, in our businesses and with our clients. And now we’d like to take it on with you. To help you with this aspect of your life. For your life’s work, your team and family. Because, make no mistake, making work work for everyone will make us all better off. The way most of us work is not only breaking us but our families and friendship networks, the economy and the environment. Changing the way we work and our attitude to work has the potential not only to help us on an individual and personal level but also to help address the five major crises we’ve identified – one step at a time.
Our book – Better Off Working Wild is available on Amazon and www.betteroffedits.com