Sir Terence Conran: An Old Hand at Sustainability

Hard to imagine now, but Brompton was flagging until Conran refurbished the historic Michelin building and moved in.

The FT and The Earth Awards recently hosted a day-long conference (or ‘Summit’ as these things increasingly seem to be called, as though that implies some tangible outcome might be achieved) on the subject of ‘Investing in Innovative Design and Technology’. In reality the topic would more accurately have been described as innovative design and technology solutions to sustainability issues, but perhaps they were worried the less sexy ‘s’ word would turn people off.

It’s always difficult to summarise an event such as this. We listened to 24 speakers on 6 different topics, in a blend of ‘keynote speeches’, panel discussions, and Q&As, all expected to distill a career’s worth of wisdom into ten pithy minutes.  Thus, so many potted ideas and potentially inspiring solutions and ways of conceptualising the problem arise, that it becomes – whilst fascinating and educational – overwhelming. Conference fatigue kicks in and highly intelligent, well-mannered delegates drift off like tired schoolchildren. Which in this case was a shame because the final speaker of the day, Sir Terence Conran, was by far the most thoughtful.

Chairing a pre-lunch panel discussion, Nick Jankel (whose bio, rather nauseatingly, declares he is a ‘leadership, collaboration and social innovation expert, a public intellectual, TV presenter, inspirational speaker and transformational coach’) complained that in Britain we don’t ‘celebrate the maverick’ enough. This came out of his mouth alongside other such catchy, probably ‘TM’, concepts like ‘innovation inoculations’ and ‘zoom thinking’ and irritatingly referring to the panel in the collective as ‘you guys’.

I would like to propose that, if that is true, we also don’t consult the older and wiser enough, particularly in public life (the trend for baby politicians is scary), and particularly on the subject of sustainability. Of course, the era of instantaneous media favours the younger and more photogenic. But it is as though, because climate change is a ‘young’ concept, we are bound only to look to the younger generations to solve it – maybe because the younger generations hold their elders responsible for making the mess in the first place. But there have been wider forces at work than pure ill-will and meddling, and some such elders, like Conran, have always operated their businesses on ‘sustainable’ principles: the word just hadn’t been invented yet. It was probably called something like ‘waste not, want not’ or ‘thrift’.

Refurbishment – which has been a hallmark of Conran’s architectural projects – is an inherently sustainable approach to rejuvenating urban areas. His furniture will outlive its owners. The food in his restaurants is locally sourced. On finishing the FT every day he rolls it up and saves it as fire lighter. So after the carousel of innovation gurus and panicky environmental agitators, the calm ponderousness of Conran reflecting on a life lived sustainably was reassuring. He even explained how to make good stock from bones the butcher will give away for free.

Of course it is very easy to level the accusation that the Conran empire, however well-principled, caters only to the upper middle classes. The people who eat in his restaurants and shop in his shops are those who can afford both sustainability and luxury: ironic for a business built on a personal philosophy of thrift. But then the issue of over-consumption, at least in our own country, went hand in hand with the exponential growth of the middle classes – the lower echelons aspiring upwards via the accumulation of stuff. Surely Conran’s model is a much better one to aspire to? His designs are high quality made to last: his customer is not the insatiable consumer, but someone who buys an armchair for life. His products are only expensive by comparison, their price tags just reflect the true value of things (if not outsourced to a sweatshop).

It did occur to me, listening to him speak, that the climate-change-induced panic and confusion and calls for ‘game-changers’ must be baffling for someone of Sir Terence’s generation, for whom a much more (if not totally) sustainable way of existing is well within living memory. (Equally, I know of my own grandfather bemoaning the lack of community support in his old age, sadly comparing it with what he could remember as a child. What paid carers do impersonally now, conscientious neighbours would have naturally done in the past – economically far more sustainable, as well as pleasant.) We were doing it not all that long ago. And as one of the many panellists pointed out, ‘We all know what a truly sustainable city looks like, because they’re all around us: the pre-industrial city.’

Although it is starting to figure, the question of ‘what makes us happy’ gets too little airtime in these discussions. If people are ambivalent about acting to mitigate climate change, it’s at least partly because it’s such a terrifying concept. Being assured that the end is nigh is of course likely to make the average citizen close their ears to the debate.

The benefits of a more balanced way of life need better marketing. Who would object to less time at work, feeling healthier, eating better quality food, no traffic jams, being supported by your community? But part of that is also learning to be happier with less; which, after centuries of culture and decades of advertising convincing us that getting stuff = status = security, will be a hard conceptual leap for the generation whose parents were the resource-guzzling baby-boomers, who have never known anything other than to expect increasing material prosperity as part of the natural order of things. How do you explain that turning off the lights when you leave the room, or having fewer clothes, is somehow equivalent to a better quality of life? This is the real challenge for the next generation of Mad Men: getting us to stop buying.

As it has often been said, tritely enough, that money doesn’t buy happiness, there is a growing mountain of research pointing to, at least within the OECD countries, an inversely proportional relationship between material wealth and health and well-being. Applying the carrot and stick model to the sustainability problem, it’s increasingly clear that too much time has been spent wielding the stick over the heads of relatively powerless citizens, and not enough thinking about what the carrots might be.

More on Conran at the Earth Awards here:

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