How reconnecting with the outdoors inspires powerful sustainability movements in a digital world

  • 4 weeks ago
  • 5 Minutes to Read

Right – think about it. When was the last time you spent time outside?

And I don’t mean those daily tasks like walking your dog or cycling to work. I mean being outside outside – those intentional moments spent outdoors for the sake of being outdoors.

Take a moment to reflect – I bet you just revisited a pretty cool scenic view in your mind.

Maybe, like me, you used to be good at dedicating time to being outside. Maybe you’d plan after-work activities or action-packed weekends away, fully aware of the benefits reaped in truly wild spaces. And maybe, like me, you have sadly lost touch with this fundamental human need. During the current climate crisis we’re going through, reconnecting with this need is more urgent and worthwhile than ever.

Here at Enviral, nature and the outdoors is at our core. Starting out as a collective of outdoor enthusiasts, this spirit is embedded in our company’s DNA. In fact, ‘adventurous’ is one of our five core company values. Over the years, we’ve evolved into an understanding that adventure is not limited to extreme sports and is more about pushing personal boundaries — no matter what your accessibility needs are. This belief is more than just talk and is reflected in our company culture. We regularly take team days out of the office in natural spaces; our employee benefits package includes ‘Adventure Half-Day Fridays’ where colleagues are encouraged to beat the traffic out of Bristol and explore the surrounding wilds to close a week’s work.

Despite this, I still find it hard to prioritise time for myself outdoors. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the team haven’t been making the most of those early finishes either. The harsh reality is: when a growing company, especially one with client-focused workflows and consistent deadlines, is also compounded with a talent shortage and the cost of living crisis—what’s the first thing to get squeezed? You guessed it. Time outdoors.

That’s why for this Earth Week, I want to take the opportunity to reinstate the outdoors as a human need that we all need to tune in to. Because, for me, being outdoors and immersing myself in nature is a gateway to reconnecting with myself and the world around me. Now, granted this may be more accessible for some than others, there clearly needs to be a collective shift in how we connect with the outdoors.

And it’s this connection that will ultimately inspire real, genuine change.

I believe business is the best vehicle for mass positive change. So, how can we harness the outdoors at this critical time in our fight to revert the climate crisis? And how can we channel the momentum of these powerful sustainability movements into positive business impact?

There’s a reason we feel better after spending time outdoors

A few years ago, the digital detox was a prolific wellbeing phenomenon, widely adopted by tourism and health and wellness sectors as people tried to establish healthy boundaries with their devices. But it feels to me as though the pandemic breached the proverbial flood barriers – in 2020 the average UK adult spent half their waking hours looking at screens – and ever since, we’ve struggled against the tide of overwhelming digital fatigue. 

But conversely, the pandemic also offered many people time to explore the antidote: spending time in nature. Over 40% of people reported nature, wildlife and local green spaces became more important to their wellbeing during restrictions. A study of 20,000 participants, conducted by scientists at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, revealed those who spent two hours a week outdoors in green spaces were more likely to say they experienced good health and mental wellbeing. Two hours a week was the threshold, any less, and the benefits would not be felt. It’s encouraging to see our health service now referring people to nature projects through green social prescription programmes. We’re quite late to this party on this one though, the Japanese have been practising shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest-bathing’ since the 1980s. This nature-based therapy is more than a psychological exercise, but a physiological one too: outdoor recreation offers the release from sedentary screen-based activities we crave; it moves our muscles and reconnects our minds with our physical bodies.

This growing awareness of how vital nature is to human health, happiness and wellbeing has converged with concerns over screen time into a sweeping back-to-nature movement; where people are exploring how immersion in nature can benefit their physical and mental health. This matters, because if time outdoors nurtures healthy headspaces and the energy we need to offer more kindness and compassion to each other, we’re one step closer towards uniting people in the fight for our future earth.

In a business context, leadership is critical to building the positive impact of this movement. After all, a burnt out martyr isn’t going to encourage employees to make time to benefit from the restorative effects of nature. But beyond instilling the values we want to see in the world, what excites me most about this back-to-nature phenomenon is how in prioritising our collective human health, this movement is inspiring businesses to place real value on the natural world, too. Louis Vuitton’s partnership with Cadogan and SUGi project to create a forest in Chelsea is so much more than an offsetting tree planting exercise, but an ambitious urban rewilding project. Using the revolutionary Miyawaki method – a diverse, layered planting concept devised by its namesake, Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki – the project will result in a self-sustaining ecosystem by 2024, designed to boost sustainable development and the wellbeing of residents in the London borough.

There’s a reason nature lovers become nature’s stewards

For many of us, the outdoors – and the sense of wilderness that comes with it – feels far away. I’m one of the privileged people with the means to escape the city and reach it. The fact that many of us live in cities is one explanation for the vast disconnect humans feel to nature, potentially contributing to the view that we as a species are somehow separate or superior. Does spending time in nature really make us more likely to protect it? This letter published in the Society of Conservation Biology concludes that enhancing ‘human-nature connectedness’ – the term used to describe when humans feel part of nature – can encourage the switch from the detrimental  ‘vicious circle’ to the ‘virtuous circle’ of a sustainable worldview. In simple terms, exposure to, and engagement with the natural world, can together encourage sustainable behaviour.

However, rallying communities around their shared love of the sea, the mountains and the rivers won’t have a positive impact if we fail to engage and listen to the people who have the deepest relationship with these wild places.

For us at Enviral, there are examples of outdoor activism everywhere we look: the snowboarder Jeremy Jones campaigning for climate action through Protect Our Winters, and surfer (and our Non-Exec Director) Hugo Tagholm raising awareness of water pollution with Surfers against Sewage. For the latter, what originally started as a social uprising has caught the metaphorical wave of environmentalism with ease, because water pollution impacts people and the environment simultaneously, and unites them in a shared mission. Encouraging people to take small, tangible, individual actions – like doing a 2-minute beach clean – gives them the opportunity to experience the difference they make to the environment as an individual. 

Now, thanks to the work of tireless campaigners, brands are taking action to eliminate unnecessary waste materials from their supply chains, from packaging to the products themselves, with big players like Unilever weighing in to halve their use of virgin plastic by 2025. Outdoor activism works, it’s why outdoor brands with a true commitment to environmental stewardship are so successful – think Patagonia and Finisterre.

However, rallying communities around their shared love of the sea, the mountains and the rivers won’t have a positive impact if we fail to engage and listen to the people who have the deepest relationship with these wild places. I’ve been inspired by Alice Aedy’s documentation of the Terra Livre camp in Brazil, where the communities are demanding their rights and their voices are heard to prevent deforestation and destruction of their indigenous lands. For businesses, the key consideration here is this: climate action must go hand in hand with climate justice. We need to listen, and we need to take an intersectional approach to our communication strategies in order to bring everyone with us. We must lift the voices of those struggling to be heard, and put their knowledge at the heart of climate communications. Converse’s recent All Star Murals campaign is a brilliant example of how brands can promote conversation around social justice issues, and bring multicultural narratives into urban communities.

There’s a reason it’s called blue sky thinking

The boardroom for me is literally the least creative space I could be in, and I don’t know about you, but my best solutions don’t come to me when I’m on a Zoom call either. Anyone who knows me knows I get my inspiration from nature; whether evening runs or weekend hikes, it’s in the outdoors where my thinking really fires up. Obviously, collaboration is crucial for strategic communications but there’s a reason our best ideas come to us when we’re walking outside or even in the shower: the default mode network (DMN). This is the part of our brain which switches on when we switch off. When we’re wandering outdoors, our mind wanders too; this is the default mode network in action. I recently listened to a conversation between two of my favourite minds; Rob Hopkins speaking to Matt Barr on Type Two, an offshoot of Matt’s Looking Sideways podcast in partnership with Patagonia, which explores the intersection of the outdoors, action sports and activism. A UK-based activist and environmentalist, Rob explores the idea that “climate change is a failure of the imagination” and asks the question “are we experiencing a failure of the imagination, and if so, why?” 

He believes our collective inertia towards the climate crisis is the result of “a perfect storm of factors which are really ruinous to the human imagination. We don’t really spend much time outdoors,” he says, ”and all the time we’d usually be imaginative we dedicate instead to these highly addictive devices in our pockets.” 

When you think about it, this makes so much sense. How are we supposed to think big, when we spend much of our time in the oppressive containment of four walls, focused on the small rectangles of our devices? On top of that, “stress and anxiety and trauma cause the part of our brain imagination fires from to shrink, and economic austerity, loneliness and depression are profoundly damaging to the imagination”, he says.“If we don’t imagine it, we can’t build it.”

He’s not alone in speaking up for the power of human ingenuity, renowned author and professor of environmental biology Robin Wall Kimmerer believes too, that “imagination is one of our most powerful tools.” Recognising the outdoors offers us all the space we need to imagine bold, regenerative solutions is so compelling – especially because this is what people expect now – 88% believe brands have the responsibility to take care of the planet and its people. 

My favourite examples of big picture, regenerative ideas are the emergence of nature-based solutions: looking to nature itself for answers to this crisis. This water-purifying, floating billboard installed by personal care brand Shokubutsu Hana is restoring the waterway in the very act of communicating the brand’s commitment to cleaning up the Pasig River. Our Earth Day billboard for our client Ecologi takes the same proactive approach, but uses a technology called PURETi, which uses sunlight to break down harmful pollutants. By the end of its 6-week lifetime, it will have removed 4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the air. 

Another inspiring example is Koskenkorva Vodka Climate Action, a distillery that uses regenerative farming methods and recycles 99.9% of supplies to produce net-zero vodka — even the barley husks are used to power the production. Distilling vodka is a centuries-old process, so if we can use our imagination to change the way it’s mass-produced, there must be a million other production processes begging to be reimagined for a climate positive world?

So, is time outdoors good for sustainable business?

Personally, and professionally, time outdoors has had a profound impact and is behind many of our achievements at Enviral. It has played a huge role in our journey to this date. And I can tell you, there is no better feeling than solving that problem, overcoming that creative block, or having that idea as a result of escaping into nature, if only for an hour or two, and coming back to it with a clear head.

I believe that reconnecting with the outdoors can help us create more compassionate communities through nature as therapy, encourage environmental stewardship through outdoor activism, and boost our collective imagination through some time spent blue sky thinking.

All we need to do is listen to our need to spend time in nature, step outside, and see where it takes us.

 


 

Want to explore the impact the outdoors can have on sustainable business with us further? Find out more about our Earth Day 2022 Event – How the outdoors inspires powerful sustainability communications – here.

 

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Written by
Joss Ford