Using surfing to sell clean seas: a conversation with Chris Hines MBE (part 2)

Chris campaigning in Westminster in the 1990s

For the first part of this interview, click here.

Martin: We talk about fishing where the fish are in marketing, and you’re doing that when you work out where the media are going to be.

Chris: But the media would contact us. I had one when John Gummer was Secretary of State. The media said “If we told you John Gummer was going to be at Bedruthan Steps tomorrow, what would you do?” And I said “Well, we’d be there, wouldn’t we?” And they’d say, “Well guess what? At 8.30 tomorrow morning, John Gummer’s going to be at Bedruthan Steps!” So I found out about this at 3.30 in the afternoon, and I waited until 5.15 and then I faxed the Department of the Environment’s press office and said “We understand that John Gummer is going to be at Bedruthan Steps tomorrow. We, along with the media, we’ll be there and we’d like to talk to Mr. Gummer, and if he doesn’t meet with us, we and the media will be left to draw our own conclusions as to his real care for the environment”. And when we turned up in the morning, their Press Officer was absolutely seething. And we said “It’s nothing personal, but we’re going to use everything we can”. And he came up, and we had to disappear into a little gift shop and have a private chat, but they all filmed us going in, and that’s what they wanted. So having that good relationship with people is important. We never had a single arrest.

Martin: It’s in line with Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among many others. You always come across as a very nice and personable guy; you’ve got very clear convictions, but you put them across in such an amiable way that I imagine it’s very hard for anyone to get angry with you, because your intentions are good, and you’re communicating your position in a civilized manner.

Chris: There was a civil servant in the Department of the Environment that we had to influence the most. I was in Whitehall going to a meeting, and I bumped into him in Pret a Manger. He said he was sneaking off to watch Scotland play Brazil in the World Cup, and they lost only 1-0. Surfers put wax on their surfboards, and there’s a brand called Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax – ‘the best for your stick’! So I sent him a pack with a card saying “Really sorry about the match – thought I’d send you this.’ A couple of months later I went for a meeting with him, and his paperweight on his desk was the Mr. Zog’s. So every day while he operated and did his job, we were within two feet of him, we were in his eyeline the whole day. And everyone coming into his office would have said “What’s that?” And obviously he did have a sympathy for us, otherwise he’d have just hurled it in the bin. Again, people might say “The Department for the Environment, civil servants, they’re the devils…” No they’re not. They’re just people like the rest of us. And actually if you can present the campaign and the story and the positive solution, then why wouldn’t you go there? Though for sure there’s vested interests.

Martin: I read Civil Disobedience again once Trump won, and there were immediate protests in New York and across America, and there was a line that reads “It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience”. It really is all about individuals, isn’t it? And at Eden, the view was that it’s not that companies are inherently bad, you have to work with companies to effect change.

Chris: Yes, who’s got the best distribution? Coca-Cola. They have. If you can get into the right brain parts with them, though it’s a difficult one to do.

Martin: What about marketers inside corporations. If they’re like your scriptwriters on Casualty and EastEnders who want to try to use their position and skills to try to improve things, what sort of things could they do?

Chris: If you look at what happened with Brexit and Trump, on each of those, one side was doing really good guerrilla-level communications. They better understood who their market was, and they used imagery. You know, that £350 million to the NHS was a complete lie. That is slightly worrying now that we live in a time when you can say whatever you want, and then you just print a tiny little disclaimer, or you even immediately walk away from it. This whole post-fact world – if you go to hospital and you’ve got a serious illness, you kind of want facts, you don’t really want someone going “I don’t care about facts, but try this tablet” – you will want experts when you really need experts.

I think marketers should help people articulate and get those messages out, into the mainstream, and challenge some of the communications that exist. I think we will see a time when the model of mass-consumption is shifting. Someone was on the radio the other day – it was the head of an electrical retailer – and he was saying that in the future their business model is going to be providing a service, rental of your whole home IT system. From the moment the cable comes in, everything will all be done by them, and you won’t own any of that, you’ll pay a service contract. That’s Radio Rentals! So it’s taken us 20 or 30 years to come back to Radio Rentals! None of us used to own a television, but we’ve been conned into the fact that we have to buy televisions.

Martin: And that’s down to the need to grow, I guess. I saw a great quote by the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Chris: He was a writer who wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang. Aw, yeah! The best!

Martin: It’s a brilliant summary of the absurdity of the notion of growth for growth’s sake. Growth with an end in mind, OK, but when I was talking to Rowan Williams we were talking about how companies start with a purpose but they then forget that and their objective changes simply to ‘growth’. So what’s your environmentalist take on growth?

Chris: Well, we’ve only got one planet so growth on the model we currently have isn’t sustainable, it can’t carry on. If all 7 billion of us wanted to live like Americans we would need five planets, or like Europeans, it’s three planets. We’ve got one. And we can’t say to people “You can’t have what we’ve got”, so we have to work out how we live within the carrying capacity of one planet. And if we don’t, then stuff will go wrong. And we’re already seeing some stuff go wrong. We’ve not done a clever job on the environment, and I think the general public know that. And I think the general public will, given good leadership, react well. I think the reasons need to be put forward.

I think people generally know that [the Western way of living] isn’t making you happy. We’ve lost our communities, people are more isolated, and they’re less happy. We’ve got more products and things, but none of that actually makes us very happy. Tim Lang who is a professor of Sustainable Development and sat on the Sustainable Development Commission with Jonathon Porritt, believes there is a shift from value for money to values for money so that we know people aren’t being exploited.

We just had a very nice breakfast. Now, it wasn’t actually that huge, mine was just two eggs, some pine nuts and some spinach. It could quite easily have been bigger, but we paid a reasonable price for it and it’s good quality food. And I know that the eggs will have come from around here, the pine nuts probably won’t have, but it’s been cooked here and the Blue Bar where we’re sat now, it’s at its capacity. There was a moment when they tried to grow, they tried to replicate, and they had a Blue Bar in Falmouth and a Blue Bar in St. Ives, and what they actually said was “Those don’t work really, we can’t replicate what we’ve got here. So this is it”. And guess what – ‘this is it’ is just fine. They employ a whole load of staff, they make good money, they provide good service. In the summer you might have to wait for a table because everybody wants the food. And what’s wrong with that? That’s its capacity.

I think there is a whole thing around spirituality, and I don’t mean religious, I mean connecting with and remembering that we are of this planet. We’re not, as a species, anything very different from other ones, we’ve just been quite a clever one. Though some of our species haven’t been that clever! But we are connected, we’re animals and the health of the planet dictates the health of us. So back to carrying capacity: we have to live within it. And can we? For sure we can!

Martin: Is growth always going to be with us, but how businesses grow might change, such as along rental lines, as you say? So growth is OK, as long as it isn’t messing up the planet?

Chris: Yeah, and in that example, growth will come from the company that does rentals the best. And those that go with the Radio Rentals model, they need to grow that as the option that pushes [out] the others who are trying to sell you single use items that fail. Built in obsolescence is ridiculous. How’ve we allowed that one to happen?

But there’s growth in making something and having a really good repair and maintenance, and then the ability to decommission it, take it back into its constituent parts – Ellen MacArthur has been doing loads of work (and lots of other people have as well) around the circular economy and things like that – that’s how you grow. So there are all these jobs that are available, and some of them are probably more skilled. If you want a skilled, well paid economy, you have people who can repair your television, you don’t just have people whose job it is to sell you one, and then put it in the bin.

Martin: So it’s not growth in itself that’s bad.

Chris: No, it’s consumption-based growth.

Martin: It’s resource-hungry, waste-heavy growth that’s the issue. We must find different ways to grow that don’t have this negative impact.

Chris: In our very early days, when SAS first formed, we said that we wanted to see a cessation of the discharge of untreated sewage to sea, we wanted to see both the liquid and solid content looked at as a resource rather than a waste. And when you do that you say “OK we put it back on the land and that’s what our vegetables grow on”. If we keep pumping it into the sea we’re depleting what’s on the land, so we have to get those nutrients from somewhere, so do we then go artificial? No, you build the industry around putting it back on to the land.

And the same with water. If you’ve got a high quality final effluent, you can use it as a cooling water. Anglian Water did that. They had a stream that was running dry as it was being used to cool an energy plant. So they took the waste from the sewage treatment works, treated to primary, secondary UV, and they used that to cool the energy plant, so they didn’t have to extract [so much] from the stream. That’s just being intelligent. But putting that together was growth. There were clever people doing that and building the system to allow that to happen. But we do have to have a societal basis where we all understand that we’re all in it together, and at the moment we’re not. Our politics drives us more and more into a split society. And absolutely you can understand if someone is struggling to have a roof over their head and stay warm, things like environmentalism are nice-to-haves. But that requires leadership; genuine, deep, proper leadership.

Coming soon: The triple-bottom-line, Chris’s secrets of campaigning success and the importance of optimism, even in the face of apparently insurmountable odds.

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