A Chat With Geoff Gourley
Geoff Gourley’s “day job” is Director – Sustainability Integration at NuGreen Solutions. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the not-for-profit company Shape Our Future, and a board member of the United Nations Association of Australia – Victorian Division. Somehow, Geoff managed to find the time to talk to The Switch Report.
To start at the beginning, where does your green streak come from?
I grew up in country Victoria, in Traralgon, and spent a lot of time out in the country or down at our beach house. I was also into Scouts so I’ve always had a natural affinity for the environment. I also remember a school trip to the Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations, and seeing a diorama that showed whole towns like Traralgon being moved so they could get at the brown coal underneath them. To me it was a horrifying prospect.
More recently, doing the Centre for Sustainability Leadership Fellowship program in 2008 was a transformative experience. This brought me into contact with sustainability advocates from outside of the built environment sector that I’m most familiar with, people from the law, the arts and social sectors, and that had a lot to do with me starting Shape Our Future.
In amongst your non-profit activities, you’ve also held senior positions with large companies for many years. How do these two areas relate to your personal goals?
Everything I do is linked to a mission to influence either business or the community to becoming more sustainable – to produce a more positive outcome. It involves visioning, funding and supporting dreamers and doers and thought leaders. There’s a business side to it, and a community side, with different drivers and different conversations. I like the diversity of friends I’ve made through these different activities, and on the business side I get to influence the big decision makers who hold the purse strings.
You talk about sustainability leadership, and how it will lead business and the community into a sustainable future. If someone with the profile of Al Gore has had difficulty in motivating the world into action, is it possible to lead people to sustainability?
With leadership it’s important to take a position, but then you need to show the benefits. This works with business where you can show that becoming more sustainable improves the bottom line and adds to future business value. We can make a change within a business and then use that as a case study to show others businesses that they can improve staff retention, make more profit and gain other benefits. Then we’ve created a new norm. Sustainability leadership is about both business and the community, but it’s my personal belief that it will be business that leads us down the sustainability path.
In 2009 you said “We face a global climate crisis, more than ever before. We need innovative and immediate change in paradigms to unlock sustainability as a pathway for future generations.” Has progress been made in this area or are we becoming less sustainable?
Sustainability as a term has been done to death. That said, there has been a significant improvement in sustainability, especially overseas. A lot of leaders are stepping up, making commitments and undertaking ethical investments. Climate skeptics are getting less exposure, and there is more public recognition of the problems we face and the need to do something. We’re on the right pathway, although things are not happening as quickly as we would hope.
As a not-for-profit, how does Shape Our Future get on for funding?
Shape Our Future relies on the voluntary efforts of 12 to 14 people. Any paid roles are outsourced, but money is hard to get and we don’t traditionally apply for grants. We have run fundraising events, we do seek donations, and I have also provided financial support.
It’s no different with the United Nations Association of Australia. Even with the UN brand behind it, it’s hard to attract financial support.
It was announced this month that Shape Our Future had acquired Sustainability Drinks. Tell us about your plans.
Sustainability Drinks never had a formal structure. It was simply a group of people who made it happen, although it remained fairly dependent on Dan Atkins’ involvement. Bringing it under the Shape Our Future umbrella will give it more structure, and while I will be putting in some of my own money to help things along, it will remain not-for-profit.
Our first priority is to ensure that the current events program rolls on. We want to quickly expand the Sustainability Drinks events in Sydney and Brisbane, then around the other state and territory capitals. The 2014 calendar will be put together early in the piece, and we will be looking for international speakers, too. Our aim is to simply make it THE sustainability networking event across Australia. I think we’ll also need to attract some sponsorship to put Sustainability Drinks itself onto a more sustainable footing.
Other plans are to run events in addition to the monthly meetings, including forums that bring sustainability professionals together. And although it’s early days, I’m hoping we can organise the world’s biggest Green Drinks event to coincide with the next Sustainable Living Festival.
When do you sleep?
Oh, I’m pretty organised. I’m good at being in the moment and focusing all my attention on whatever I’m doing at the time. I’m not a nine to five person, and I’ve used my most recent holidays to look at eco-resorts. And nothing feels like work.