Environmental journalist and The One Show’s Lucy Siegle is the founder of the Observer Ethical Awards, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Here, Lucy talks about the incredible success of the event and how industry sponsors, including National Grid, have helped keep them relevant in a changing world.
“Bringing sponsors like National Grid in has helped us shape the awards and keep them relevant.”
Lucy Siegle, environmental journalist.
National Grid sponsors the Community energy project award at the Observer Ethical Awards. The winning project will receive £5,000 in funding from National Grid.
Source: The Guardian.
The green agenda has been through peaks and troughs in the past decade.
Changing governments and the global recession have all had an impact on the public’s attitude towards sustainability and issues of environmental and social justice. A guiding light in these choppy waters has been the Observer awards – sometimes known as the Green Oscars – which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
The awards are an annual celebration of environmental and social success stories. They shine a spotlight on the fantastic ethical ideas and projects that make the UK arguably the world leader in sustainability and nominations are now open for this year’s milestone event.
National Grid has been involved with the awards for the last seven years and now sponsors the community energy category.
The awards were the brainchild of journalist Lucy Siegle, a Guardian and Observer writer and also a popular face on BBC’s live magazine programme, The One Show.
“I’ve been writing a column in the Observer as a sort of environmental agony aunt for the past decade,” said Lucy. “In our first month, we had so many readers writing in telling us they were pleased that there was a column, saying that every newspaper should have one.
“We couldn’t cope with the volume of letters we were getting so we thought about how we could acknowledge all the stories we were receiving on a bigger scale. From there, the awards were born.”
Lucy’s interest in the environment began at an early age, during the 1980s, when issues such as climate change and damage to the ozone layer first fed into the public consciousness.
“I have a long-held interest in the environment, verging on ‘nerdishness’,” she says. “Back at school we had an environmental sciences graduate who taught us the subject, which was unusual in the ’80s. I really took to it and it was a portent of what was to come.
“What’s interesting to me is the ‘connectedness’ of the subject. You talk about marine litter and then take a couple of steps back and realise how connected life truly is. It’s incredible to think the impact of something we do here can be felt in the Arctic. It links us all in humanity. So many people, millions of us, are involved in these stories.”
Lucy’s passion for sustainability has helped her drive the awards forward. Keeping green issues high on the agenda is a constant challenge, so it’s taken a huge amount of commitment to sustain and build the event’s profile.
“You get a couple of years of buoyancy when everyone’s excited because you’re the new thing,” she said. “But after that you have to work to keep them fresh and dynamic.
“The whole green agenda has gone through highs and lows, so we’ve had to form and shape the awards. In a recession, too, priorities change. Sustainability is shunted down the priority list, so you have to work at it.”
One way that Lucy and her team have achieved this is by collaborating with industry sponsors to bring additional expertise to the table. National Grid is one of those and will be sponsoring the community energy category for the second year in a row.
The category celebrates the work of communities that are generating their own energy, for example by installing their own devices such as small wind turbines or solar farms.
“Bringing sponsors like National Grid in has helped us shape the awards and keep them relevant,” said Lucy. “The level of expertise that National Grid has brought to the table is above anything we could possibly have in-house.
This category started last year before the Government’s White Paper, which laid out its own vision for community energy.
“This award mirrors the ethos of the awards scheme generally,” said Lucy. “It celebrates the unsung heroes who drive the agenda forward. These people are real ‘do-ers’, fanatical about energy technology and the energy market.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with lots of community leaders who are driving these projects. They’re now starting to drive Government policy because they’ve become the experts.”
Badge of honour
Having a large sponsor such as National Grid on board brings additional benefits to the category winners, according to Lucy.
“Winners gain prominence in their regions and having National Grid as a sponsor means it is a real badge of honour,” she explained.
“What many people don’t realise about community energy is that getting funding is sometimes the easier part. What follows can be a long and difficult road. Although it’s not easy, we hope the benefits will encourage more communities to persevere. These awards are a great opportunity to show what’s possible.”
The Observer Ethical Awards have come a long way since their inaugural year, through a combination of dedication from Lucy and the organisers, and the contribution of all the award entrants.
“The first year was a bit haphazard,” admitted Lucy. “I was really nervous and I remember Annie Lennox saying to me, ‘take a deep breath’. She rescued them. They’ve definitely become slicker in their execution!
“Since then, green issues have been through some rocky times. But through all of that we’ve always had so much commitment from Observer readers – and non-readers – who’ve sent in their stories and entered the awards.”
Lucy is proud of the awards’ longevity and the legacy the scheme continues to build.
“I can’t believe 10 years have gone by,” she said. “Copycat awards have come and gone, but we’ve grown and grown by being authentic. It makes me very proud.
“We’ve had some brilliant young green champions and incredible winners over the years. One of my favourite stories is of a wildlife reserve that we funded, which is in the corner of a lorry park. It’s still thriving after several years. That’s really what the awards are all about.
“You also see some amazing judging moments where you hear famous actors and globally recognised scientists arguing about the merits of a sustainable handbag!”
Lucy sees the green debate increasing in volume and forecasts a bright future for environmental awareness and sustainability.
“Noise about green issues is certainly on the up,” she said. “The debate is coming back again in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this year. We’re looking for a successor to Kyoto and also new ways to take the issues mainstream.
“I think celebrities play a big part in that too. I cheer when I see Leonardo DiCaprio speaking about the climate change agenda.
“Also, new people are coming through in business and industry. Younger executives are moving into senior roles and, dare I say it, there are more women coming through. These people are part of a new generation that understands the importance of sustainability. They think differently and will run the businesses and infrastructure of the future.”
With the awards now in their 10th year, Lucy sees it as an ideal time for individuals and businesses to look back and reflect on how much has changed in a decade.
“The anniversary is a good time for all businesses to look back and see what they’ve done to be socially and environmentally responsible,” says Lucy. “If you really think about it and look at your supply chain, something will certainly have changed.
“Once you make a start you realise how much scope there is to be more sustainable. There’s so much support out there. Online networks are blossoming and people are incredibly generous in sharing their ideas.
“Our awards are a great place to be. There’s so much great stuff happening and so many people doing amazing things. The difficult part now is deciding who the winners are.”
Judge Stuart’s verdict
National Grid was voted Responsible Business of the Year for 2014 by Business in the Community – just one sign of its commitment to being a responsible, ethical business. Stuart Bailey, National Grid’s Group Head of Sustainability & Climate Change, is one of the judges for the Observer Ethical Awards. As the company prepares to sponsor the community energy category for a second year, Stuart describes why it’s important to be involved in an event that celebrates extraordinary ethical achievements.
“Providing energy in a secure, sustainable and affordable way is vital if we want a happy, healthy society and a functioning economy. Local energy projects, whether producing or using energy more efficiently, have a role to play in helping to meet these aims.
“Getting communities and people involved in energy projects helps them to understand its importance and the challenges in producing and using energy in a responsible way. This improved understanding helps people to appreciate some of the challenges that we face when planning and building new infrastructure.
“By sponsoring the community energy category at the awards, we get to reach people that we wouldn’t ordinarily reach through our day-to-day business activities. It also helps us to demonstrate that we’re part of the solution to delivering energy responsibly.
“Judging the awards is always fascinating for me. As well as community energy, the awards range across retail, arts and culture, fashion, travel and young pioneers – all of which are way outside my specific area of expertise.
“This will be the third time that I have been involved in judging the Ethical Awards and it’s always inspiring to hear about the efforts that entrants make to champion sustainability and ethics in their products or services.”