Rethinking the system with Trewin Restorick

Trewin Restorick founded Hubbub to persuade people to make planet-friendlier choices to tackle climate change. But just as that charity has started to make an impact, he’s off starting a new project to target corporates. Karen Thomas meets a green innovator and serial starter-upper

The news broke early last year. Hubbub founder Trewin Restorick was leaving the environmental charity to start a new venture yet to be confirmed. It was quite the story. Restorick had led Hubbub since creating it in 2014 to inspire people to make greener, more sustainable choices.

Hubbub punches above its weight. It introduced community fridges to the UK, creating a network of 300 and counting. During lockdown it launched Community Calling to recycle smartphones and other e-waste to help local children in need. It works with artists to spread the word about inclusivity and green poverty.

Hubbub’s lively newsletters make choosing greener options more fun. Supporters were surprised, with Hubbub making real impact, to see the founder move on so soon.

Restorick played it all down. “It’s never healthy to have a founder hang around too long,” he told reporters.

Before Hubbub, Restorick left Friends of the Earth to launch UNEP-backed Global Action Plan. And now he’s back with another new project. Sizzle Innovation is also a nonprofit, still working for people and planet but focusing on how businesses deliver systems change.

Which raises an obvious question.

“Am I a serial starter-upper?” he muses. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Systems change

Sizzle Innovation aims to tackle structural barriers to greener practices. It has started with peat.

Campaigners have battled for three decades to stop the UK selling peat. Government announced in August that it will ban sales of horticultural peat – but not until 2024.

Kicking that can down the road undermines government promises to restore 35,000 ha of peatlands by 2025, to restore habitats and absorb carbon to support the UK’s Paris Agreement targets. “Stopping sales of peat is one of the simpler ways to reach net zero,” Restorick says. “I was campaigning about that 30 years ago. Peat is so important as a carbon sink. But we haven’t done it.

“When you ask why, you see most of the industry wants to change. They understand why they must. But they simply don’t have enough material to replace peat that works. That creates the challenge how to find that material.

“Meanwhile, our waste industry is collecting garden and food waste. Why aren’t we using that bio waste to source peat-replacement material? Because we haven’t included the waste industry in that conversation. The challenge is to bring industries together to deliver that objective, to press for legislation that supports it.”

Conference speakers bang on about systems change. Sizzle wants to cut through the buzzwords to make change happen. it takes fresh thinking to spot the opportunity, Restorick says, to understand which people and bodies can deliver change and find ways to connect them to turn words into action.

Lockdown bought Restorick space to think. Hubbub works to change people’s behaviour, to promote greener choices. It campaigns against single-use plastics. During the pandemic, the public-health panic drove most retailers to use even more packaging.

“If it isn’t easy and isn’t convenient, it’s hard to do. Or it’s more expensive,” Restorick says. “People change behaviour quite quickly. That’s important but may only reach a certain number of people.

“The circumstances have to be right. We want to change the system for providing goods to make the sustainable option the easiest, cheapest, best and most convenient. How do we change the system? By bringing together people who don’t usually talk, get them to rethink what they’re doing and to experiment.”

Sizzle “will create a new space for people to collaborate, then share what we’ve learned as widely as possible and encourage others to copy, replicate and steal”, Restorick says.

Thinking space

Hubbub also exists to share good ideas. It’s famous for its community fridges – but the UK groups adapted the idea from neighbourhoods in Berlin and the Basque country, organising themselves whatever way suits local need, Restorick points out. Sizzle also plans to borrow and share best practice.

Change is tough, he concedes. It takes public pressure and responsive leadership and market-ready solutions, “and disruptive companies that can push things quickly and government to legislate appropriately”.

Electric vehicles are a good example, he says. Firms like Tesla disrupted the market, then came charging infrastructure and laws to phase out or push out polluting vehicles.

“As soon as government announces phasing out something, businesses react faster than government expects. They see the writing on the wall. All the car adverts now are for electric cars. The manufacturers know what’s happening.”

But not everyone can afford a car – wouldn’t it be better to invest in better, cheaper rail and bus networks? “The solution has to be more active travel and more trains and buses,” Restorick says. “And that comes down to government leadership. There are signs of hope – city mayors around the world are being bold. In Paris, in US cities and in Austria. Sizzle will look internationally to find good examples.”

So many things need to change, and so fast. How will Sizzle decide what broken systems to tackle first?

Having started with peat, Restorick is circling fast fashion.

“We need to look at consumption of fashion,” he says. “If we’re talking about broken business models, the fashion industry is totally broken. We produce too much. We buy cheap, low-quality copies of catwalk fashion to wear once or to show off on Instagram. We buy and return multiple sizes. We dump it on developing countries.

“It’s not circular and it’s not sustainable on any level. It’s a nightmare. We want to have a go at it. Maybe we’ll fail – but these are questions we need to ask. If we could just get the fashion business-model right, many others could follow. But we’re fighting the huge wave of where our culture is going. Yes, some people buy pre-loved fashion – but that’s tiny in relative terms.”

Starting from that critical distance, Sizzle will work out where opportunities might lie, who the innovators are – who might inspire better practice. If it can determine the barriers, it can then press government to toughen up laws on the one hand and shame or cajole companies to go greener on the other.

“It’s about finding the right group of people to ask these questions,” Restorick says. “People know things have to change. We’ve got an interesting group coalescing these ideas.”

Transforming water

How could systems thinking transform water and environment? Partnership and collaboration come with the territory. What about turning the words into action?

A lot of it, Restorick says, is failing to communicate. “We’ve had river-catchment plans for years,” he says. “They’ve helped people to understand why trees matter – that if you take out trees you’re more likely to flood, for example.

“But they aren’t well communicated. Catchments are complex and can seem abstract – and they’re underfunded, of course. People don’t connect themselves to their catchment or to the plan. Maybe it needs something like the package-recovery notes (PRN) scheme that exists for packaging, so that everyone contributes their share.

“It’s technocratic. It has its own language. And that’s why people feel so alienated. Most people have no clue what a river-catchment plan is or how it matters to them.

“If we talked to people about their home’s risk of flooding, about water quality in the local river and about how they access nature, there’d be a very different response from the public. We need a lot more environmental debate to engage people.”

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