Interview: Craig Bennett - 'We don't want the public to feel a sense of despair about climate change'

Large-scale protests on the streets. Schoolchildren putting politicians to shame. Now the environment is back firmly on the agenda, the Friends of the Earth chief executive tells Andy Hillier how it plans to seize the moment

Craig Bennett, chief executive, Friends of the Earth
Craig Bennett, chief executive, Friends of the Earth

On the day we meet, the last Extinction Rebellion protestors are being cleared from their central London encampments and the city roads are returning to their smog-filled, congested normality.

Thanks to the protests, the issue of climate change and the environment has dominated the media agenda for almost two weeks, achieving the almost unimaginable feat of knocking Brexit from the top of the news bulletins.

Coupled with the BBC’s powerful documentary Climate Change: The Facts and the parliamentary visit of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the movement has had all the main political parties scratching around and hastily assembling their climate-change plans. None has looked convincing in its responses.

This moment, though, is something of a double-edged sword for the established environmental campaigning groups. Traditionally, organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been the drivers of change, successfully lobbying in recent years for a host of green measures, including the plastic-bag tax and the Paris Agreement. On this occasion, it was a collective of thousands of individuals, operating informally under the Extinction Rebellion banner, that forced politicians and the public to sit up and take notice.

Friends of the Earth decided not to be an official part of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, choosing instead to leave it up to its 280,000 supporters to decide whether to take part. But its chief executive, Craig Bennett, did post a video message of support, praising the Extinction Rebellion protestors for bringing much-needed "urgency" to the debate.

Solutions-based approach

Bennett stands firmly behind FoE’s decision not to participate officially, saying that some of the direct action tactics used by Extinction Rebellion do not "sit so well" with some of its supporters. The environmental campaigning sector, he argues, is also at its best when individual organisations make their "own contributions".

"There’s a ludicrous thing that happens in any sector or social movement from time to time: when we suggest that we want the same thing," he says. "Then we get the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front scenario. If you look at Extinction Rebellion’s strategy, it says very clearly that it’s a protest movement."

He says FoE’s role is to promote the solutions: "What we don’t want is for the public to feel a sense of despair about climate change. We need to show them the way out."

FoE is promoting six main ways to tackle climate change in the UK (right). But Bennett says, bluntly, that the solutions "have been known for years" and it’s time to take action. "We need to stop faffing around," he says. "Take air travel. In Norway, they’ve said that all of their domestic flights need to be electric-powered by 2030. That has stimulated research and innovation over there, so why is the UK government not doing the same thing? We’d be surprised how quickly we could do it. It only took 50 years to go from the Wright Brothers to Concorde."

Chief executives in the sector tend to fall into one of two categories: the management careerist who will happily switch between cause areas and those who are wedded to one particular cause. Bennett falls firmly into the latter. He first became interested in environmental issues as a studious 14-year-old after watching an episode of Question Time. "Jonathan Porritt, who was a director of Friends of the Earth, was on the panel," recalls Bennett. "As far as I was concerned he was the only one making any sense. I joined Friends of the Earth the next day. I then got more and more involved in my local group."

Bennett went on to study for a Master’s degree in conservation before landing a job at FoE at the third attempt in 1999. He rose through the ranks to become a senior campaigner, but left in 2007 to join the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership as deputy director. "The job was about pulling together a coalition of companies that would argue in favour of regulation on climate change," says Bennett. "At that time we had the CBI and senior business figures such as Digby Jones just dismissing the issue. But then you had this breakaway group of companies arguing that we needed a climate change act and other measures. I thought that was an incredibly important thing to do."

In 2010, he was tempted back to FoE, becoming its director of policy and
campaigns. When the chief executive role became vacant in 2015, he successfully applied for it, seeing off external candidates.

"When I became chief executive I made it clear that, although I was dedicated to Friends of the Earth, I was worried about it losing relevance to people," he says. "I was worried that we’d become a bit expert and had been sucked into the Westminster and Whitehall bubble. I thought we weren’t connecting with people’s lives in the way that we needed to."

Campaigning refresh

In essence, Bennett says, this has led the charity to rethink the way it connects with supporters and build on the success of its award-winning campaign The Bee Cause, which calls on the public, government and business to take action to protect the species. "We have tried to link local to global," says Bennett. "We are the place where you can take positive action in your local environment, but as part of a global movement."

When he took over the helm, FoE’s supporter numbers had been in slow but steady decline for almost 20 years. It has taken three years of hard work, but the figures have started to head upwards again to the current figure of about 280,000.

"Our supporter numbers – people either taking action or giving us money – are 62 per cent higher now than it was at the start of 2018, even with the introduction of the GDPR," he says. "We have thousands of new people giving us regular gifts – that’s really powerful. Clearly something is working."

A lot can be done. Things don't always have to rely on officials

He attributes the success to a range of factors, including hiring a new leadership team in 2016, a major investment in its data and switching to more digital fundraising practices.

"We stopped street fundraising in 2015," Bennett says. "It was expensive and retention was pretty low. It just wasn’t the right first experience for us. It has taken a while to replace that, but we’ve now had seven months of straight growth in regular givers."

Another issue he tackled head on was the lack of diversity within the organisation. Back in 2015, Bennett called out the environmental community, arguing that it was too white and middle class. Over the past three and half years, he has changed things: the percentage of FoE’s 175 staff from BAME backgrounds now stands at about 10 per cent, and it actively encourages more people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in its work.

"We have a really good paid legal intern programme, which is very good for bringing in people from diverse backgrounds," he says. "I’m also really excited about our project My World My Home, which is about training the next generation of environmental campaigners.

"More than 50 per cent of the young people involved are from non-white backgrounds. There’s always more to do, but we have made some good progress."

Bennett is especially proud of FoE’s efforts to attract and retain staff. It has done this by making salaries more competitive and introducing a rewards system based on staff members’ current contribution, rather than length of service. This means some salaries have fallen in theory, but he describes it as a "fairer system" all round. Another result is that its median gender pay gap, which was almost 7 per cent in 2018, has almost gone and should be eradicated within three years.

Now, Bennett says, FoE is turning its attention to refreshing its campaigns strat­egy. In recent years, the organisation has focused on stopping a lot of "bad stuff from happening", which includes helping almost eliminate fracking for shale gas in the UK and fighting the creation of a third runway at Heathrow.

Bennett says that at the heart of its new campaigning strategy will be a much more "networked-change" approach that relies on local communities pushing for reform. "We want to talk to politicians and policy experts, but your ambition is actually limited by where the public is at," he says. "We need to appeal to their hearts and minds if we want long-term shifts."

When a community gets behind something, it can really make a difference, he
argues: "We have seen progress on a whole load of issues, such as people in Manchester campaigning strongly to improve cycling provision. In Bristol, Friends of the Earth has been doing some amazing work as well. A lot can be done. Things don’t always have to rely on officials."

It will also continue to use the devolved nations, which have been more receptive to change than Westminster. "It’s often possible for us to win a lot of things in Wales first before you win them on a national level," says Bennett. "For example, we campaigned for the plastic-bag tax in Wales first. It was much easier to roll out it elsewhere once we had shown that the sky would not fall down when it was introduced."

But Bennett says it’s important that everyone – from ordinary people to politicians and businesses – really understands the urgency of climate change. "The annoying and difficult thing about climate change is that the longer we take to solve it, the smaller the prize at the end. The reason why people get so anxious is that there’s a ticking clock."

The trouble with being a charity

In July last year, FoE essentially stopped being a charity. After many years of run-ins with the Charity Commission over its campaigning, it decided that Friends of the Earth Limited, its company, would carry out most of its work and Friends of the Earth Charitable Trust, its registered charity, would take a backseat.

"For 20 years a lot of the work was undertaken by the charity, but it was getting more and more challenging for charities around campaigning," says Bennett. "We were at the forefront of pushing back on that, but we kept being challenged by the Charity Commission over various issues, not least the EU referendum."

Dealing with regulatory concerns was taking a lot of time, so Bennett, with the support of both FoE boards, agreed that if there could be only one public-facing FoE it had to be the non-charitable arm. "As of July 2018, all the work that you see us do is FoE Limited," he says. "But we get a lot of funding from the trust and that has to be ring-fenced for charitable purposes."

FoE will continue to fight where it sees regulation introduced that is inappropriate for charities, but Bennett (pictured, right, at an anti-fracking demonstration at Preston New Road in Lancashire) says this can’t be its defining purpose. "We have to tackle climate change and what’s happening to the natural world," he says.

He describes the episode in which FoE was accused of breaking campaigning rules in the lead-up to EU referendum as a "ludicrous" moment. "What we saw was an unfortunate set of circumstances," he says. "We had a highly politicised board of the commission at the time, though I should make a distinction between the staff team and the board. We also kept being told that charities could campaign around the referendum, but it took forever for the commission’s guidance to emerge."

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