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5 Minutes with… Joanna Yarrow



The founding partner of M&C Saatchi LIFE on her unusually green upbringing, encouraging responsible lifestyle choices through IKEA’s business and why the strategic and creative consultancy she leads is on a mission to make sustainable living mainstream

5 Minutes with… Joanna Yarrow

In February this year, M&C Saatchi announced the launch of LIFE, a global consultancy that combines a proven track record in sustainability with data-driven communications planning and creativity. The purpose of LIFE is to help brands and businesses inspire and enable people to live healthier and more sustainable lives, and in doing so build value. 

LIFE is led by IKEA’s former global head of sustainable and healthy living, Joanna Yarrow, and MD of M&C Saatchi London, Tom Firth. 

As an internationally recognised sustainability figurehead, Joanna has 25 years’ cross-sectoral experience in strategic leadership, organisational change, engagement and innovation. Alongside her role at LIFE, she sits on P&G’s Global Sustainability Advisory Board and is Non-Executive Director of sustainable development company Human Nature. She’s made it her life-long mission to drive behaviour change on a global scale in order to enhance quality of life and help protect the planet.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Joanna to hear where this mission came from and how she’s trying to help bring about the change the planet needs with LIFE’s clients and partners.

LBB> When did you first become passionate about sustainability?

Joanna> In a nutshell, I always have been. I didn’t suddenly wake up with a plan. But I have a set of values that drives me both personally and professionally, which looking back clearly started in my childhood.

My parents were green well before it was fashionable. And in all the ways that were the most unfashionable! They were the traditional 1970s Good Life hippies. I grew up in a Sussex forest with no car, no TV. I remember getting my first 'new clothes' from a charity shop when I was 12. Before that, everything had been from a jumble sale. I was really proud because they had little plastic tags on. Those stuck out of my clothes for quite a time, so people knew they were from a shop. 

When you're a kid, you want to be like everyone else. So having these planet-loving parents who put that before everything else was profoundly embarrassing. My lunch box contained homemade stone-ground wholemeal, organic, handmade bread that fell apart when I opened the recycled, reused greaseproof paper and all the little hairy, homegrown beansprouts fell out, with a windfall Russet apple. I finally made a deal with my mum to get one packet of crisps a week in my lunchbox. And on Fridays I'd share them. I didn't get any, but everyone could see that I was ‘normal’.

LBB> But their values did obviously end up transferring to you, even if you resented them a bit.

Joanna> Yes, joking aside, my childhood was wonderful in many ways and was deeply formative. I felt a connection with the natural world from a very young age. I'd come home from school and just go out in the forest. Nature was my playground. It was so blindingly obvious to me that you would try to protect and support the natural world that we rely on for everything. I felt that before I learned it.

But at the same time, I was also very conscious that I wasn't like my parents. I aspired to good things in life. I loved fashion and I wanted to travel. I syphoned off my lunch money to buy Vogue and World of Interiors. I had an inner tension: I wanted to protect the natural world but I didn't want to live a life of giving things up and compromise.

A better life that respected planetary limits became my mission – but not just for myself. I recognised that most people, even if they wanted to, weren't going to be able to go and live in the Sussex woodlands. I felt that mainstreaming sustainable living, and making a better, more sustainable way of life affordable, attractive and accessible for as many people as possible was the only way that we were going to avoid the worst of the future. That became my personal, as well as my professional mission. 

LBB> How did that mission translate into a career?

Joanna> My early environmental actions included selling jars of tadpoles in the playground to raise money for a school conservation garden. My first petition was in an exercise book as a teen. I sent it to the CEO of Boots, asking them to phase out CFCs. 

Back then, careers in ‘environmental issues’ didn't really exist. So to keep my options open I did a degree in Human Sciences. I came out as a mildly informed generalist, passionate about lots of stuff. I ended up teaching business communication skills in Switzerland. 

Then I came across a new Master's course in leadership for sustainable development with Forum for the Future. For a scholarship you had to demonstrate a proven passion and commitment to the environment. So I spent a year trying to prove myself. 

I was living in Rome so I contacted all the UK NGOs I could think of to see if they had offices there. I ended up volunteering for WWF and various Italian environmental NGOs and then got a job as assistant to the vice chair of Friends of the Earth Europe working on European environmental campaigns. That experience got me a place on the Master’s course, which gave me the further knowledge and experience I needed to start my ‘career’.  

LBB> Later, you worked for a while as a sustainability communications strategy advisor at a time when that didn’t really exist. What was that like?

Joanna> I worked mostly for corporates and a few NGOs. My first client was the head of corporate affairs for Tesco, who wanted a sustainability communication strategy. After six months, I told them we couldn’t start putting leaflets on the front of their freezers because they needed to actually do something before they communicated these things. I’m glad to say they’ve done a lot more since…

In 2001 I co-founded a sustainability business called Beyond Green. For 12 years we ran a portfolio of strategy projects focusing on where we live (cities, communities and homes – for example low carbon city strategies and the 2012 London Olympic legacy masterplan) and how we live (lifestyle and behaviour change – for example Ariel’s turn to 30 campaign). 

One of the challenges of sustainability consulting at that time was we were either speaking to people who were already interested or paid to be interested. Meanwhile the agenda simply wasn’t on most people’s radar. I felt there was a clear need to simplify and amplify the sustainability message. So alongside the consultancy, I started to do mainstream communications projects. I was a ‘green living’ specialist on GMTV, This Morning, Tonight with Trevor McDonald - all those sorts of mainstream TV shows. “This is a massive issue – let's take eight minutes on the sofa at 6am to make it relevant to people having their breakfast!”. Quite a communications challenge… I also presented a BBC series called ‘Outrageous Wasters’ and wrote sustainable living books, which were very mainstream, international and non-technical. 

LBB> Then you went in-house to IKEA. How did that happen?

Joanna> I was approached by IKEA in 2013. They were looking for a head of sustainability, so I thought I'd help them find someone. I got into conversations with them and I was really impressed. They were doing so much behind the scenes, but their Swedish humbleness means they don't like doing their own trumpet. They had such a strong track record, such big ambitions and such a massive reach, I realised they were in great position to help make sustainable living mainstream worldwide. So I joined!

Initially my role focused on establishing sustainability as a function and way of working across the business, driving strategy and creating commercial opportunity. Although ensuring the company’s supply chain (using 1% of the world's commercially forested timber and 1% of the world's cotton) and operations were sustainable was important, actually the company’s biggest scope for positive impact was in inspiring and enabling people to live more sustainably at home. So we did lots around sustainable living, engaging co-workers and customers in exploring how to live better life within one planet limits – for example setting up the Live LAGOM campaign that’s still live today. And we used insights, collaboration and co-create to help drive   new business development – for example introducing home solar installations for customers and establishing an ‘energy for all’ approach that’s now global. 

LBB> What did you learn from your role as head of sustainable and healthy living for IKEA globally?

Joanna> In 2017 I moved into IKEA’s global team. The first job was to update the company’s global sustainability strategy and we decided to look ahead to 2030. We needed to understand how the world is changing, socially and environmentally so that we could identify the most important role for our business in moving to a more positive future. That led us to set an audacious north star goal: “By 2030 we will inspire and enable one billion people to live a better life within the limits of the planet”. 

Then my job was: What does that mean in practice? What's a better life? How do you measure inspiration and enablement? How do you demonstrate causality? What impact metrics should you use? And then how do you embed this mission into everything the company does?

We realised that to get the shift you need to inspire people to see that there are different and better ways of living rather than sticking to old habits and norms. And you also need to enable them because if you just make people feel that something should be different but they have no agency to change they feel disempowered.

LBB> How did M&C Saatchi LIFE grow out of that thinking?

Joanna> I moved back to the UK to be with family at the start of covid. I had lots of conversations exploring corporate Chief Sustainability Officer roles. But IKEA had set the bar pretty high and I realised I’d find it hard to lead sustainability in an organisation that wasn't as serious about the agenda. And also that perhaps I could create more impact by working across organisations and sectors to cross pollinate ideas to challenge, inspire and accelerate change. 

I also feel the importance of engagement and creativity for the low carbon and sustainability transition. We need to change norms. We need to inspire, catalyse and accelerate change in unprecedented ways. Being in a creative context is great for that. You need to both inspire – reframing what's possible, and enable, drilling down into technical enablement tactics.

LBB> So that's where being part of M&C Saatchi comes in…

Joanna> Yes. M&C approached me with the idea of setting up a new entity to bring together sustainability strategy and comms. I thought that was really exciting and needed to be done, as M&C Saatchi is a huge, established, influential set of businesses with enormous potential to become part of the solution. 

They'd already done lots on the social change agenda worldwide, but they hadn't explicitly addressed the planet agenda with such focus. I felt we needed to turn that tanker as well as creating a speedboat new sustainability business. So we spent most of last year working across all the companies in the global group to develop a set of people and planet commitments to focus both the way we work and the work we do, focusing particularly on climate and DEI, and creating frameworks to address a range of sustainability issues. Then that gave us space to focus on the ‘speedboat’, finally launching LIFE in February.

LBB> And what have been your biggest focuses since launching?

Joanna> We’re working across several key areas: 

We’re continuing to work on sustainability commitments, principles and ways of working across the global M&C Saatchi network – doing all the training, focusing on how we work and the work we do and really turning the dial on great creative work. 

We’re supporting existing M&C Saatchi clients worldwide with sustainability-focused briefs. 

But we’re focusing on building enough capacity to do new, unique and game-changing work through LIFE. We're looking to work with clients and on projects which are ambitious about mainstreaming sustainable living very fast. Quite often that's about doing things in different ways. So unusual alliances, collaborations and coalitions that you might not normally do in a standard agency context. 

LBB> What areas are most exciting to you at the moment?

Joanna> In LIFE we’re particularly focusing on areas that make the biggest positive difference in people’s everyday lives – food, travel, energy and consumption. 

Food can be a huge game changer for climate, biodiversity, land use and water as well as human health and wallets. We’re establishing a cross-industry coalition to take on the challenge of mainstreaming a more plant-based diet. The challenge is that most people don't make the connection between what they eat and the big issues they care about like the climate crisis and co-benefits like improving health and saving money. Planet-positive eating is a three-times-a-day superpower. So we’re bringing big players together to co-create that metanarrative – to inspire action, and to enable by pointing people towards attractive everyday switches to reduce the amount of meat in their diet, and then provide impact and insight frameworks to support new developments. It’s in its early stages, but is very exciting…

Energy is also front of mind for many of us right now, and I’m super excited that we’re starting a major new project with an energy infrastructure company next month. It’s not announced yet so I can’t say much, but it should be a game changer in helping to decarbonise energy use in the UK. Watch this space!

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M&C Saatchi London, Wed, 24 Aug 2022 14:34:28 GMT