We talk to Sue Riddlestone OBE, CEO and co-founder of Bioregional, this year’s GOLD winner in the 2019 Individual Leadership category
Even as a small child, Sue Riddlestone, CEO of Bioregional and winner of this year’s Outstanding Leadership award at the Global Good Awards, had an innate connection to what was good and not good for the planet. “I remember seeing a travelling zoo and knowing that caging wild animals was wrong; and chopping down trees didn’t seem right,” she recalls.
It proved a passion and belief that would eventually lead to her receiving an OBE for her services to sustainable business, and to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. She was part of the London 2012 Olympic bid team to write the sustainability strategy for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and subsequently helped to deliver the greenest Games staged to date.
Sue originally trained as a nurse, yet always harboured the idea of running a ‘green’ business. The opportunity came along when as a young mum she got involved with the Women’s Environment Network (WEN), promoting the use of washable nappies. “It really grew from there,” she explains. “It was part of looking at how we could reduce our paper use and how we could do things differently.”
After joining WEN’s board, she then moved into a role at an environmental centre in Sutton where she met Bioregional co-founder, Pooran Desai. She worked predominantly on forestry projects, focusing on recycling paper. “We developed a closed loop system, what you’d call ‘circular economy’ today,” she smiles, successfully instigating the first kerb side recycling programme for SMEs.
The success of the scheme resulted in so many calls to the centre that she was encouraged to set up her own organisation and it was in the process of trying to set up a ‘green’ office for the new business that the idea of BedZED, an eco village in South London was born.
Initiated by Bioregional, BedZED was developed by the Peabody Trust in partnership with Bioregional and ZEDfactory architects. Completed in 2002, it was the UK’s first large-scale, mixed-use sustainable community comprising 100 homes, office space, a college and community facilities. It is also where Bioregional’s main office still is.
“Our focus was on how to live sustainably and how easy it would be to be to create a zero carbon building,” she says. “We were amazed at the interest it generated when it was finished. People loved it and started asking us to help them do similar projects.”
And through that experience the One Planet Framework, a way of living ‘within the limits of the planet, leaving space for wildlife and wilderness’, was created. “It works for both individuals and organisation,” Sue explains. It comprises ten simple principles and detailed goals and guidance.
Sue’s experience with Bioregional led to her association with the UN Sustainable Development Goals which are very close to her heart. She is extremely proud of the five years she spent being involved in the UN processes to secure the SDGs – and being the official NGO global focal point for successful efforts to include the goal of Sustainable Consumption and Production in the SDGs.
So what does she believe businesses and people should be doing now to make a difference? “You’ve got to look at where your global footprint and your impact – there’s a calculator online – we need to examine how we build our homes, the energy we use and our transport. When we build we need to do it in a more resource efficient way. We need to fix more items [rather than buying new] and buy more second hand. We need to be more energy efficient, use renewable energy, invest in UV panels.”
She encourages homeowners to change to electric hobs in their kitchens.
“Diet is a really big change we can all make,” she says. Sue went vegan in January…
The biggest barrier to change, she believes, is that society’s default systems aren’t sustainable – and they need to be. “Regulation brings results,” she says. “The plastic bag tax works and change is incremental. “There should be more encouragement for electrical vehicles and fossil fuel cars should be taxed differently.”
Government needs to “do its bit” and provide a simple framework which businesses can then respond to. “Social innovations need to be scaled up, too,” she says.
“We need to realise the climate emergency is the biggest challenge to life on earth and should be at the heart of politics and of the economy,” she believes. “To me a sustainable future is straightforward, I can see what needs to be done. Eighteen years ago this way of thinking was considered space age, but this is the new normal. We just need to get on with it.”