The Zone transcript: Natalie Isaacs

September 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips


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Michael Short: Natalie Isaacs, welcome to The Zone. Thank you kindly for your time.

Natalie Isaacs: Thank you for having me.

MS: You are the founder and chief executive of 1 million women, and you have been invited as Australia’s only representative at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit in New York, which will have occurred by the time this is published. Can we start please Natalie with what 1 Million Women is all about and then can you talk a little bit about what the summit is all about?

NI: 1 Million Women is about engaging, it’s about inspiring, it’s about empowering and it’s about motivating, but most importantly it is about mobilising women to take practical action in their lives; through the way that they live, through the choices we make and the way that we spend our money. It’s about taking practical action on climate change.

MS: And the summit; why are you going to be there? What is it about?

NI: It’s very exciting. The 100 Women Summit is invitation only for just 100 women in the world. And I am the only Australian going, so that is an amazing opportunity for me, but it is also really great recognition or acknowledgement of the work that we’re doing at 1 Million Women.

The summit is bringing these incredible women from around the world together for 3 1/2 days to discuss climate action. It is about furthering the women’s agenda on climate action, and it is bringing 50 women from the global South and 50 women from the global North together to tackle this critical issue.

MS: You were invited because of the work you have been doing mobilising, as you said, women to take practical action on climate change. You advocate people doing their bit. And that is a lovely concept, isn’t it, because it is collective ownership and individual empowerment. So it’s about doing their bit through simple daily actions, and there is a lot of information on your site and we will link to your site. Every woman who joins has a personal goal to cut one ton of CO2 from their daily lives within a year of joining the campaign. So let’s go through the things that people can do to achieve that. What is going on? What are you seeing in terms of change and progress? And what can people do practically now?

NI: I want to highlight that when I look at all the women going to the New York Summit, 1 Million Women has a really different approach. We are apolitical; we do not lobby governments. We rise above all of that and we just focus on what people can do in their daily lives. In terms of what we’re bringing to the table in New York, it is literally that. There are so many amazing women going who focus on policy and focus on projects, and we focus on people and the power of people.

The other thing about our philosophy at 1 Million Women is that there seems to be this complacency, all this armchair activism going on, because of the internet and because of all the incredible easy access to social media platforms, that you can feel like you are doing your bit by taking a box, by saying ‘yes I want to support the barrier reef’ and so you tick a box, or ‘yes I am going to send a letter to a politician’ and somebody has written the letter in the field and all you have to do is put your name.

It is this kind of approach where you almost feel I am doing my bit for the environment because I am supporting somebody else doing the work.

MS: And it has been called out perhaps as slacktivism or clicktivism. And you are seeking to avoid that?

NI: And don’t get me wrong, because it is so important that we have these amazing organisations out there that are fighting the big fight and trying to change policy at government levels and doing all of this. That is really important.

But that becomes an issue because everybody needs to take responsibility and ownership of this critical issue. Everyone. We all have to do what we can. It has to be this holistic approach; it has to be from governments down and from grassroots up. How can you truly be engaged in this issue? How can you support others or voice your opinion?

MS: OK, so let’s go back to the meat of that question. So how can you? What are the practical measures that you are seeking to mobilise women around and facilitate and educate people about?

NI: We focus on the key areas of our daily life. And we focus on how through the way that we live we can reduce waste and reduce pollution and actually save money at the same time. We focus on food and food waste and the journey of food.

Food waste is a huge issue which not only is about pollution and landfill, but about the embedded energy that goes into producing food. We look at over-consumption. We just buy so much stuff. It is this belief that the more stuff we have, the happier we will be.

But in reality that just is not the case. We focus on shopping and consumerism and the power of our money, and that every time we spend our money we are voting for the kind of world that we want to live in. So it is about the choices we make.

We focus on home energy. We’re doing a project at the moment called Women Power. It is about how do we get our home energy consumption down by 20 per cent.

It is the low-hanging fruit. If 1 million households actually reduced their home energy by 20 per cent, it would save $240 million and it would actually be able to shut down two coal fired power stations. That is incredible power, just from changing the way that you behave at home.

MS: Can you please talk a little bit about those behavioural changes and the low-hanging fruit? What are some simple things that people can do, Natalie, to move towards that saving, which is in everybody’s interest?

NI: This project we’re doing at the moment is a pilot with 10 women from 10 very different households. It is really about understanding your own household. These 10 women are from 10 very different households and they are discovering their energy use, and they are all different. But one common theme is actually lights.

And I know that sounds simple, and we all say yes turn off the lights. But I have to tell you, it is absolutely true. It is one of the easiest things that you can do. And I know that this goes way beyond just turning off the lights when we talk about action on climate change.

But if you want to get your home energy consumption down by 20 per cent, don’t walk into a room and automatically turn the light on, which is what we all seem to do because we’re walking into a room. I know in our own house the thing that actually got me and engaged on all of this was because I gave myself a mission to cut my electricity bill by 20 per cent. It was the easiest thing to do. I turned off everything at the wall at night before I went to bed. I didn’t turn on lights when I walked into a room.

Our dryer broke so we didn’t get another one, and using the clothes line and not the dryer saves an incredible amount. Using cold water washes works too. Actually being vigilant around the house, you can, without any hardship, cut 20 per cent off your electricity bill.

MS: How does 1 Million Women actually work? What do people need to do to belong, and how do they actually participate?

NI: 1 Million Women has been an evolving movement. When I started in 2009, the whole focus was about joining up, it is all free and you just go to the website and you make a pledge to cut a ton of pollution out of your life.

I created 1 Million Women out of my own story, because, for me, up until the middle of 2006, I was nowhere in my own climate change journey. So I had my head buried in the sand and went along thinking one person cannot make a difference so why bother. And I actually think that is really a very common way of thinking.

MS: And I will come back to in detail your evolution and your story, because it is an interesting and integral part of this. But, just to stick on what people can do to participate in 1 Million Women. They go along to the website and they register. But what happens?

NI: When you register, you get taken to an activities centre. This is the current website as it is. You get taken to an activity centre and there are over 50 different ways for you to cut pollution right now out of your life. It has the activity and it has how much pollution you would save if you did it for a month and how much you would save if you did it for a year.

That was very much the call to action when I launched 1 Million Women, because it was very much giving bight-size actions with real and tangible results. That is the road to empowerment. It is not about talking, it is not about lists. It is about action.

MS: This about trying to create a seamless transition from inaction to action. It is trying to overcome any potentially overwhelming feelings of it is all too big and I am just a person who can do nothing?

NI: That’s right. The thing is, climate change seems quite a complex thing and you do detach from it because you think I really don’t get it or I don’t understand the policies and so you just decide to carry on. But I, in these last four years of doing 1 Million Women, have found that the one thing I have come to understand is the absolutely incredible power of people.

People as individuals and as a collective have incredible power to make change. It actually is about the power of the people. That is how change is really going to happen. And I know it sounds really simple, you know turn off the lights or think about the way that you spend your money, but let me tell you it really does make a difference if 1 million people do it or whole communities do it.

It makes an enormous difference. It actually transforms society. If we live our lives with the least impact on the planet and in the way that we spend our money, the over-packaged goods that we leave on the shelf to gather dust, people will stop making products in over-packaged, unnecessary packaging.

MS: This people power idea that you are talking about feeds into a notion that we were talking about over lunch, Natalie, which is the notion that has come through in The Zone from a lot of guests, and that is there is no them, there is only us. That this can happen anyway, while at a national and international level politicians are grappling with what are really complex policy questions. People can just get on with it.

NI: Yes, people can get on with it. Do you know, five years ago there was a couple of thousand household roofs in Australia with solar panels. Today there are over 1 million.

That is extraordinary – 1 million households have just gone whatever is happening we’re doing it. So there is a solar revolution going on. There are some amazing things happening. People are realising that we have the power to make change.

MS: There does seem to be a lot of movement. Businesses for instance are using energy more efficiently. It is in their interests to do so, and it helps at the climate-change level. So are households. Are you optimistic? And do you think the incoming government’s abolition of carbon pricing will undermine that progress?

NI: I can feel the momentum growing. For 1 Million Women, we have to rise above it because that is the only way. That example with 1 million solar rooftops is good. We have no choice but to stay on that level, because governments come and go, policies come and go.

MS: But do you think that the policy that’s coming in, which is to remove the pricing of that negative externality of activity – greenhouse gas emissions – will undermine or act in someway against the progress that has been occurring at the business, household and even individual level because people are more aware of the costs and benefits?

NI: I think that without something very real and tangible, business people do not know what to do. There does not seem to be anything really clear and decisive, and so people get nervous. So it is too early to tell.

MS: Do you consider yourself, in a sense, a political activist? It is a very political issue, climate change, and that is the one you have become very much involved in. Do you find yourself attacked, for example, or do you encounter mostly support and encouragement?

NI: We get attacked most by climate-change deniers, and actually we don’t get attacked as often as I thought we would. But it is mainly about climate-change deniers – and also about being a women’s movement. That has been an interesting thing – why is this just a women’s movement. We get attacked on those two levels.

MS: Well, let’s put aside the deniers for one, because that is a very predictable attack. But climate deniers are very much in the minority. The women thing I find slightly strange in the sense that it seems to me that you are not precluding anyone, it is not a negative statement about men, it is saying here is the power of women and part of the source of that power in this context is that women control 70 per cent of the spending decisions of households.

NI: That’s right. And when I say attack, honestly, we don’t get really very much at all.

MS: Well it would be a bit like shooting Bambi isn’t it?

NI: Yes. One time when I really saw it was a couple of years ago when nothing really happened out of Copenhagen and there seemed to be this almost permission for people to really just come out and attack you.

We were all at the Royal Easter Show, 1 Million Women, and that was quite an interesting time, seeing how people were reacting to nothing happening from Copenhagen and just this permission to say whatever they felt.

MS: And that was basically to say negative stuff? And what sort of things were said?

NI: There were quite a few rude people. I can’t really say too much but it was interesting because when we launched 1 Million Women in 2009 there was bipartisan support and it was right at the top of the agenda. And it did slip over a couple of years.

But going back to your point about women: when I did my research about what to do – and because I’m in cosmetics manufacturer and my entire working career was about women and it’s what I am comfortable with – and I found we didn’t need another environmental movement. There are enough environmental movements out there, and I have to say they didn’t get to me.

So there was something missing for me, because I only got the point of this very late. There seemed to be a real space, a real empty hole there, and that was about a movement that spoke to women, that harnessed the strengths of women, that utilised the power of women.

And, as you say, women make 70 per cent of the consumer decisions that affect the household carbon footprint. We are people with enormous power as consumers. We’re natural networkers. There is this beautiful energy around women sharing stories with women and that’s what we focus on.

1 Million Women is actually not a campaign. It is not a movement really, it’s a community. It’s a community of women sharing stories, sharing solutions, sharing challenges. When you join 1 Million Women you join this community of support and find out how to live a way of life that cuts pollution, that reduces waste, that saves money, that directly impacts this crisis of climate change.

MS: You mentioned, Natalie, your earlier career. Can we please talk a bit more about your story? Let’s look into your background and how that led to 1 Million Women. You talked when we had lunch and in other places about having an epiphany. You have talked about, and I’d like you to talk about now please, that process of realisation that you wanted to do something. What led you to abandon your business career and eventually set up 1 Million Women?

NI: It was literally an epiphany. You go to bed one way and the next morning you wake up completely different, and that is it. That is it. The moment you have an epiphany, you cannot go back because it is well and truly who you are.

I get that now. It was a longer process, obviously. I for 24 years was a cosmetics manufacturer. My life was all about overpackaging. My life was about how to get somebody’s product off the shelf so I could get mine on it. It was incredibly competitive.

I was a boutique brand in a big market. But there was one thing about my cosmetics career that I really believe has shaped the way that I think now. One of my brands was called Natalie, and it was a brand that focused on what does it mean to be truly beautiful. And being truly beautiful was not about what you put on your face.

I used to talk to anybody about buying my products and I would say actually that if you buy my product or anybody else’s product it actually won’t make any difference if you do not marry that up with a holistic approach of inner peace and happiness and relaxation, because this is only the mirror of what goes on inside and so it is a complete waste of time and money if you do not marry it up.

So if I think about the way that I passionately believed, and still do, that idea about how you look after yourself, it is actually the microcosm of the bigger picture. When you look after the planet and your environment, if any one kind of process in the chain lets you down it can actually all fall apart.

MS: So you were manufacturing cosmetics and then you stopped doing it and started 1 Million Women. And so yes I can see there is a consistency behind the holistic, individual health thing and what you’re doing now. But what happened?

NI: What happened was I didn’t even have recycling sorted. I am a mother of four, and that is how bad I was. In the middle of 2006 I had an epiphany. It was the same year that I think the media got the point on climate change. You could not open a magazine or a book or listen to the radio or watch TV without there being something about climate change.

But not only did the media get the point, they were actually able to talk about climate change in a language that you could understand. All the terms and the jargon and the policies can just go right over your head and you’re not connected. And the only way you can actually do something about this and change behaviour truly is if you are connected.

So, the media got the point. I did a few things for some friends who were in the industry and it was when I started involving myself that I started to change. The real thing that happened was when I changed our light globes, and I know this sounds cliched.

When I changed our light globes and decided at that point I was going to get our electricity consumption down by 20 per cent it was the most incredible sense of empowerment. Because I actually did something that had a real result, and that result was tangible, it was real. There is nothing like that kind of action to create behaviour change. That led to the epiphany and

MS: And to 1 Million Women and

NI: And 1 Million Women, because I actually thought there and then oh my god there must be women from the city and elsewhere, out there everywhere, who were disconnected on this issue just like me.

For whatever reason – you’re too busy, you are overwhelmed, you don’t understand, you would rather not know, whatever it is. My journey was so simple. I am not a climate activist. I am not a climate scientist. I am just another member of society. And I had the ability, through one simple action, to be able to completely change my life.

So I thought they must be other women out there in the same situation. So in thinking about what to call it and in light of knowing that climate change is real and is transforming how we live and how society works right now I thought that to be trying to get 10,000 women or 50,000 women did not seem responding to the magnitude of the issue, so it had to be 1 Million Women.

MS: You are getting close to 10 per cent of that million. Are things on track?

NI: 1 Million Women is not about ticking a box and then you are done. You have to actually change behaviour. You have to act. And we have put an enormous amount of work and effort into engaging women and motivating women.

We do events and workshops and seminars and we’re constantly staying connected. We have a really engaging Facebook page of 45,000 women. We have had 12,000 women come to one of our events. We have had 500 volunteers. I actually didn’t really know where we would get to 4 years on.

I think 83,000 women is maybe a little bit short of where I might have hoped to be now, which is perhaps around 100,000. But they are women from across the country, from all walks of life, from all different ages, and so I think it is a pretty good start.

MS: So people reading this, particularly women of course, and who might want to get involved, what do they do?

NI: They just join. They just go to the website, which is 1millionwomen.com.au. And they just join. And every woman that joins and is part of our community gets counted in. And what we do as 1 Million Women is we give these ways to live around our daily lives. We give tips and ideas. We have the one-ton challenge. That’s all you need to do, go to the website.

MS: So as soon as they join, as soon as they are on the website, they are up and running? They can start making changes that very moment?

NI: Yes, that very moment. It is all there on the site for them. Or they can look at our six ways to live. Everything is about living the life right now.

MS: The final question to everyone in The Zone, Natalie is what is the hardest thing you have ever had to do?

NI: That is a really hard question to answer. But I think, if I am going to bring that to what I am doing now, the hardest thing is to – and I think this goes to the heart of why people don’t change behaviour – accept the things, when it comes to 1 Million Women that I don’t know and not letting that get in the way of actually getting on with it. Up until the middle of 2006, that is really what I was doing. I didn’t know enough about the subject. I didn’t want to seem silly.

MS: You were paralysed by?

NI: By my embarrassment. I think when you don’t know enough about something it is so much easier – and this is not just about climate change – to just shy away from it for the fear of just seeming silly or putting yourself into a vulnerable situation where you might not know the answer.

And I think the hardest thing for me to start 1 Million Women was to go into an area that is new, to be learning this along the way, to rise above that fear and to stop making excuses and just get on with it and accept that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer to absolutely everything.

MS: Natalie thank you for your time. Good luck. Go well. And in the short term may New York be a success for you and in the longer term of may 1 Million Women make as big an impact as it can.

NI: Our goal is to take this international, and the summit is such an important platform for me because our focus is very much on our own behaviour, rather than policies, and trying to reach women everywhere.

MS: Let’s hope you do. Thank you

NI: Thank you.

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