She Is Sustainable

Over the course of Thursday 4th and Friday 5th February, I spent 14 hours in the company of 40 other women. We were there for a discussion – about the joys and challenges of being female and being change-makers. Its name? “She Is Sustainable”.

We heard inspiring and thought-provoking stories about women’s lives, careers, choices, adventures, loves, losses, changes, glass ceilings, struggles and values.

The organisers, the speakers and the participants were an inspiring bunch. To name just a few of them, they included Solitaire Townsend, Becky Willis, Amy Mount, Melissa Miners and Fiona Reynolds. Participants varied in age from 21 to 31. Speakers varied in age from 27 to over 60.

Certain themes came up repeatedly, and seem fundamental, normalising, grounding and motivational for all of us who are working women in sustainability. To share these themes is the main reason I’m writing this blog. The pearls of wisdom and realisations we had are summarised below:

  1. Be true to your values.

Do what makes you happy, and hang on to your purpose as your driving force behind everything you do. It will help you stay motivated.

  1. Define your own meaning of success.

You come up with your definition of success, don’t let society dictate it for you, in terms of who you are or what you do. Success looks different for every single person.

  1. Can women have it all?

You probably can’t have it all, all of the time. Over the course of your life you have different bits of the ‘all’ at different times. And, going back to point 2, work out what you mean by ‘all’!

As an aside, I was struck that the women who were ‘successful’ in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. at the top of a large organisation, large level of influence), all said they either didn’t have children, couldn’t have children, or their partner was the main carer. That was an important realisation for me that I really need to think about point 2 and work out what success means for me – and then how that will affect my choices in life linked to family, friends, spare time, work, and contribution to society.

  1. Believe in yourself.

It’s the most quoted, clichéd phrase you can find, but it’s true. A few of the women who spoke commented that they didn’t know how they were going to do a job when they applied for it, they just knew they wanted the job and would find a way to do it. Their self-belief that they would figure it out later carried them through.

If you don’t believe in yourself, how are you going to convince anyone else to do so? The most common barrier seemed to be our own self-limiting beliefs. Often these were created or reinforced by society, but it was clear how peoples’ own judgements of themselves are almost always far harsher than anyone else’s opinions of them.

  1. Act confidently.

Many of the women who spoke – inspiring, strong, motivated, intelligent, self-aware women – gave advice to put on the appearance of being confident even if you don’t feel it. Which links to yet another commonly quoted phrase that holds a lot of merit – “Fake it til you make it”.

  1. “I’m not ambitious, I’m a change junkie”.

Most of the women who spoke explained their drive came from the positive impact they want to create. My favourite quote of the two days linked to this was “Glass ceiling? Who cares about a glass ceiling when I’m tackling climate change?!”  It links back to point 1 – put your values and purpose at the core.

  1. Be courageous and assertive.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Be scared and do it anyway. The greatest impacts, achievements and learnings often come from these moments!

  1. Other peoples’ opinions of you are none of your business.

Be nice to people, but at the same time, accept that you won’t please all of the people all of the time so don’t let that be a hindrance to you acting for the greater good.

  1. You have one life so choose how you live it.

Think about what your 80 year old self will think. How do you want to look back on your life? What impact do you want to have had? Think about what really matters to you and make sure it is there in your day to day.

  1. Most people are making it up as they go along!

“Post-hoc rationalisation” came up a lot i.e. that idea that with hindsight your choices and the directions life take you all make a lot of sense, but at the time it all seems like a lucky coincidence, or a crazy move, or a “what the heck am I doing here?!” feeling.

When you are trying to choose between path a or path b, most people have no idea what lies ahead. Take comfort that whatever choice you make – good or bad – give you experiences, contribute to who you are as a person and help you develop.

  1. Be generous.

With contacts and connections, with (genuine) compliments, with support to others, and with yourself.



Speaking about my trip in Cambridge…

On Tuesday 28th April, I will be giving a short talk about my trip, the people I met, initiatives I came across and lessons I learnt. If you want to come along, please do. Details below:

Tuesday 28th April | 18.30-19.30 | Graham Storey Room, Trinity Hall |

You are invited to attend a short talk by Emily Dunning, who has just returned from a 6-month trip to New Zealand, via the Trans-Mongolian Expressway, China and Japan and a few other countries in-between. She has been meeting people working on sustainability initiatives, particularly those inspiring others to take action. They vary from youth climate action groups in Taiwan to clean-up events in Russia to the social enterprise ethos inspiring change in Japan.

Expect half an hour of sharing some of her stories, introducing some of the people she met and the lessons she has learnt, then half an hour to engage in conversation about what it means for you, and the activities going on in Cambridge and the UK.

Who’s it for?
– Anyone interested in grassroots sustainability worldwide
– Those who want to hear about social enterprise in other countries
– Anyone wanting inspiration for travel
– Anyone who is a bit dissatisfied with where they’re at right now needing that gentle nudge to do something different.


Getting close to coastlines

The last organisation I met with before my return to the UK was on my final morning in Auckland – I went to visit Sustainable Coastlines who are doing a fantastic job of leading the way in looking after New Zealand’s coastlines:


Getting Auckland moving, making sustainability easy

This trip has taught me the importance of a person’s surroundings for determining how easy it is to live sustainably. The infrastructure of a place – the likes of access to public transport, or presence of recycling bins, or the half flush button on a toilet – can dramatically affect the size of a person’s environmental footprint. When features to aid sustainable lifestyles are part of the fabric of daily living, everyone can be more environmentally friendly, whether they think about it actively or not.

This still all starts with individual action – the Generation Zero crew (see profile at are a passionate, committed and professional bunch of young people who are helping to change the debate around transport issues for making New Zealand sustainable. They realise the need to engage with politics and decision-making to make changes to infrastructure happen.
Generation Zero have become an authority in this area. The recent debate in Auckland about the city’s future transport plan demonstrates this – Sudhvir Singh, the direction of the Auckland branch of Gen Zero was on the panel ( – if you’re keen to learn about the city’s transport deliberations).
They have come up with an alternative to the two proposals from Auckland Council, and by the reception it has had so far, I could see it becoming THE chosen option.
I’ve learnt a few things from them about how to engage in creating infrastructural changes:
- They know their stuff – they go through relevant documents with a fine tooth comb to ensure they understand everything about the issue they are addressing
- They keep up to speed with political processes and engage with them at every stage
- They make it easy for their networks to engage too by producing online quick submit forms so that people can respond to government/council proposals to make their voices heard
-They provide thoughtful, pragmatic and realistic alternatives, focused on the solution not just the problem
- They are professional – in their publications and in the way they look (check this out to see what I mean:
- They work as a team, and they know who is good at what – the design guru, the articulate spokesperson, the political processes expert
Generation Zero makes grappling with the gigantic building block of infrastructural development for creating a sustainable society seem not only possible but also achievable.

Grassroots activism in Russia: A conversation with Tatyana Kagina

I was having a quick review of my blog posts and realised I never put this one up from back in Moscow!

Environmental action at grassroots level is on the increase in Russia. Tatyana puts this down to a number of factors:

– Internet – use of social networks (and increasingly apps too) for generating support, finances, a team around you and publicity. It is used mostly by the younger generation, creating horizontal links and enabling initiatives to get off the ground through crowd funding.

– Disappointment in authorities – people are calling for change and taking action themselves

– Observation of and involvement in international movements – communication with colleagues in Europe and the USA means there is increased activity here e.g. 10:10:10, youth climate movement

– Fashion – being ‘eco’ is becoming fashionable in Moscow and St Petersburg so more people are getting involved


There are some fantastic examples of initiatives and movements that have been set up in the last few years and are achieving success:

– Save Khoper Movement ( – campaigning against the development of a nickel mine, about 600km from Moscow. Its coordination has mostly been through the use of online social networks

– Development of recycling infrastructure – this is the kind of thing Musora Bolshe Net get involved in. There are many more examples too, as Denis had said – two girls here in Moscow organise an ‘eco yard’ once a month to collect signatures (and recycling) to call on the local administration to provide recycling facilities ( Sergey Zogorobov created his own recycling system for his apartment block – he now has a grant from the city administration! (

– Demand for bicycles as a transport alternative – ‘Let’s Bike It’ calls on the central administration in Moscow to increase the availability of cycle lanes and bike racks. Two years ago 5000 people took part in a festival to call on the administration to provide more facilities so that people can use it as a mode of transport in the city.

– Eco-communities – in Moscow a guy called Sablin Roman set up an eco-commune where many activists (including Tatyana) lived together for 3 years, which increased the level of activity and sense of community. It unfortunately no longer exists due to people moving on to other projects or life stages.

– Eco-events – a film festival is being organised for later this year in Moscow focused on grassroots initiatives; (which translates as ‘do it yourself’) is an annual ‘un-conference’ bringing together lots of initiatives e.g. environmental, social, street art, film making, all about sharing experiences, in Russia and internationally.


Tatyana has been involved in environmental action for the last 5 years in Russia, first with an NGO in Irkutsk, now with ecocamir (, a tree-planting initiative working across Russia, bringing local teams together, and championing those taking leading roles to get involved in other initiatives too. It is funded by a business man who owns a cosmetics company.


My conversation with Tatyana re-instils the difficulties associated with the political system for getting things done, but re-affirms how many individuals are finding ways around this, and still managing to make changes. To me, it seems there is a hopeful future and increasing numbers of people getting involved, which is starting to reflect in central and local administrations to some extent. My main concern/counter-point to this positive picture is the worry that if individuals are setting things up, it then means government doesn’t have to. Then again maybe that is actually democracy and active citizenship at its best, depending on how you look at it!



Mainstreaming sustainability at Cambridge University

Had such a great meeting with James and Polly at Cambridge Institute for Sustainability today – so fantastic to see their drive and what they’re achieving with big businesses. And there were so many helpful suggestions for the Hub and discussions about making the issues we’re both engaged in mainstream. After those kinds of meetings I’m always so hopeful that big positive change really can happen.