Cleaning Up Episode 91 Edited Highlights – Hannah Jones
ML Hannah, you are the CEO of the Earthshot Prize. What are the prizes all about?
HJ The Earthshot Prize was founded by the Duke of Cambridge. In his role as an advocate for conservation, he felt as though he kept visiting successful solutions that just weren’t going to scale; that there is cause for optimism in the face of climate change, but we simply are not scaling solutions fast enough. The Duke and the original team took inspiration from President Kennedy and the Moonshot, which unleashed an innovation revolution in the 60’s. They suggested an Earthshot prize, to make this the decade in which we change the trajectory of how this planet is being run. We have five Earthshot Prizes: for biodiversity, oceans, waste, clean air and climate change. We scour the earth for innovations that have shown progress, that are working prototypes and that have real signs of traction. We're building out what is, in essence, an innovation engine to support eco-innovators around the world. Then, with our amazing partnerships, we become a matchmaker between the solutions and potential supporters: philanthropists, venture capital, impact investors.
ML It’s a fundamentally optimistic project, isn’t it?
HJ Our theory of change is that urgent optimism leads to action. Before the Earthshot Prize, I worked alongside a neuroscientist, who convinced me that when people are in a state of fear, they resist change even more. So, as climate activists, urgent optimism is critical. Hope is not a strategy, but urgent optimism is.
ML Other than modelling the right behaviours by working on solutions, what else can be done to change the public debate around urgent, optimistic action?
HJ What we're embarked on is the greatest transformation in the history of the world, I would argue. I have no problem with the people that want to align themselves with the activism that is more negative and is out in the streets. However, for me, the right thing is to push for the kind of great innovation that avoids disruption and compromise and actually makes the world feel better, not worse. I'm not minimizing that there is going to be pain and disruption involved in many of those transformations, often for those that have the least power and the least privilege. For that reason, we also emphasize equity and sustainable livelihoods.
ML Let’s shift to talking about the arc of your career. How did you get here?
HJ I started out as a reporter, and a researcher and a producer on Radio One, on the social action team. In that role, I fell in love not so much with the medium but with the issues. Working on an AIDS campaign for a not-for-profit, I suddenly realized that corporations had huge untapped potential for social change. I joined Nike in 1998, at the height of the sweatshop campaigns against the company. Activists at the birth of the anti-globalization movement were beginning to highlight that we had created business models that had externalized social and environmental impacts. I joined the movement almost by accident, in one of the first companies that had a very public, difficult reckoning with the impact of its supply chain. I became part of a new generation of people trying to make a difference and change companies from the inside. I became Nike's first Chief Sustainability Officer. We went from looking at sustainability as a risk and reputation issue, to realizing that it was a source of transformation for the company and, ultimately, an innovation and growth opportunity.
ML When you and I started talking about corporate social responsibility, we were out in the desert. Now it’s completely mainstream, isn’t it?
HJ Most of my career in sustainability felt like I was pushing. Now, there's not a day when I don't have an incredible person phoning me up saying, “Okay, we're doing this, what do you need me to do? How can I be helpful? How much do you need?” I think the challenge we face now is that we need to move with speed. We need to make sure that we harness these trillions in capital that are supposed to be out there looking at ESG.
ML You've talked about how we have to do this fast. Earthshot has got a particular model for delivering it, which is using prizes. Why and when are prizes the way to go?
HJ Prizes are a spotlighting mechanism and a catalytic mechanism. I think of us as a prize and a platform. What we are doing is using the global stage that we have to showcase and spotlight solutions and innovators that the world simply didn't know about. Whilst we are not a VC, we are constantly matchmaking and talking to VCs, impact investors and philanthropists, and helping our finalists to get investor-ready.
ML I want to come to the design of the prize, because classical prizes work to a specification. Your prize is more forward-looking, about finding people on the cusp of being able to change the world and then amplifying them?
HJ Exactly. We believe that there is an incredible spread of people out there dedicating their lives to trying to come up with solutions that will make a difference. But, that movement of innovators is largely unnoticed and very fragmented. Buckminster Fuller said, “the future is here, it's just unevenly distributed.” There is a wave of change coming, though. There is a revolution happening underground, where I see people leaving their careers that were more traditional, and applying their talents and their knowledge to these solutions. Maybe this is post COVID, as well; people don't want to live their purpose on the periphery, they want to live it in the centre.
ML The prize does resemble venture capital in some ways, where most projects don’t work out. How will you deal with it when some of your Earthshot Prize winners don't work out?
HJ We know some won’t work out, we actually do take a kind of VC mentality to this. I think of our nominations almost as a portfolio play. We are talking about how we’re going to know our impact, by tracking how many of the projects we actually support and try to help end up going to scale. We know that it's a numbers game, so we want to give unfair advantages to as many eco-innovators as we can. These companies aren’t walking down Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, bumping into VCs who might want to fund them. How do we make sure Takachar get an unfair advantage, for example? Takachar have figured out a way to replace the burning of agricultural stubble - which is an air pollutant and a climate change issue – and instead use it to make rich fertilizer that not only reduces air pollution and creates increased productivity and yield for very low-subsistence farmers. They're now in a conversation with Unilever about becoming a part of their supply chain. That is game-changing, because they never would have met Unilever otherwise.
ML Final question: what would you like people listening to this, or people watching it, to do?
HJ I think we need to get behind these eco-innovators, whether they're in government, in cities, start-ups, or individuals leading not-for-profits. If you have disposable income, really think about becoming an angel investor. If you have a talent or a skill, give it to them. If you work in a corporation, think about the procurement deals you can give. I used to say at Nike, every single person at Nike's job is a sustainability job. If you look at your role, there is something you can do to make a difference, go do it. If you have disposable capital, or you have networks and access, do it, go the extra mile and help someone to succeed and become the next eco-unicorn.