Lucy Shea is CEO of the change making agency Futerra who, for over 20 years have worked on sustainable development and communication. They will only ever take on a client brief if it serves social justice and environmental protection. Lucy joined the agency when it was still in its infancy and for her it felt like coming home as at last, she had found a place to work and make a difference that aligned with her own inherent values. As the agency continues to grow so does their offering as they venture into making their own products, setting up learning through their academy, continue valuable research and are in the process of setting up an independent charitable foundation.
D: Where did you grow up Lucy?
L: I grew up in Purley which is a suburb of Croydon in South London.
D: What early influences brought you on your environmental justice journey and are there any fashion influences in there too?
L: I love that you said environmental justice, because my earliest influence was my mum, she was a huge social justice campaigner, still is, she's in her 80s now. She was active in CAFOD, Amnesty, Fair Trade and I think Croydon was one of the first Fair Trade boroughs and she was active in that and she went to Greenham Common. Because of that influence, during my teens I was campaigning on baby milk, taking action against Nestle for example, she was a huge influence on me. When I first started working in sustainability it had a much bigger environmental slant, now everything's coming together which is brilliant, but I had almost lost the reason I had come to work in sustainability which was social justice. Back then everything was environmental now, everything is intersectional as climate change disproportionately effects the poor, my work now reflects that. Mum gave me the sense that change is possible. I don’t remember lots of marches as a kid, but we certainly go as a family now. She gave me that real sense that you should work on this, you don't have to, but you should work on these types of issues because change as possible, which was great.
My early fashion influences were probably from my sister because she was seven years older; I have two kids a 7-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, when you are around six or seven that’s when your memories start to kick in, and my daughter is bringing back a well of memories for me of how I was at her age. At that time my sister seemed so impossibly glamorous and gorgeous and always had a copy of Vogue in her room and would get annoyed with me because I’d be breaking into her room, looking for lipsticks and reading her copy of Vogue. I was kind of trying figure it out, how does she do it? how is she so glamorous? what’s the secret? and what’s her formula? Obviously, she was a teenager shouting ‘Mum! she's been in my room again’. So yes my sister was my biggest early fashion influence, probably still is actually. Mum was also a keen dressmaker she made more when my brother and sister were younger than for me, but there were still old Vogue patterns in the house. I used to read Vogue almost as an intellectual exercise, trying to figure out “how do people do this?’ I could never understand all those pages of ads before you got to the editorial.
D: You went to university, what enticed you to study French and economic theory? Has it proven useful?
L: I always wanted to study languages, my mum spoke French, she studied to A ‘level and took herself off to France, so I wanted to speak another language and when I grew up the only language options in school were French or German. French was a bit more glamorous for me. I always wanted to be able to open up the world by speaking more languages and travel. To add to this mix I married a Colombian Italian so now probably speak more Spanish than I speak French. My husband’s mum doesn't speak English and we want the kids to speak their second language or even their third languages so I learnt Spanish too, to be able to have a family conversation. With economics I had this slight tension in me, there was the social justice side of the family but dad and then my sister worked in the city, in banking. So there was this tension between the social justice side of me and the interesting things that should be done with the pull of earning money and having career. I studied maths not economics at A ‘level and thought it was going to be a bit more like politics but was dreadfully disappointed to find all the econometrics when I got there. But that set me up to go into the city and earn lots of money, which I did and lasted six months. Looking back on it was a brilliant job, you got paid pots of money for doing not very much. It was in financial software because the .com boom happened while I was at Uni, I graduated in 2000 and thought OK tech and finance great but only lasted six months because it was so dull.
Then I started reading about corporate social responsibility and thought OK that's it, that puts together the environmental, social justice and business to make a difference. At that time not-for-profit, its different now, but at the time it didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t want to work for a charity. I wanted to work in business and had a sense that business was a big agent change. So finding this idea of corporate responsibility felt right and I went to work for a company called Article 13. Then found and joined Futerra.
D: You joined Futerra in 2003. Tell us your career path through the company.
L: I started as a director, an exciting job title but there are only five of us at the time. It was two years old and still very much a start-up. We still see ourselves that way now even though we're 20 years in, we still have that entrepreneurial excitement for change. At the start I didn't direct anyone, so the role really was as a consultant.
D: Did you feel like you landed on your feet this time.
L: I did, I felt I was home. It was enormously high stress, crazy hours, working weekends, but I certainly felt I had found somewhere where I could be myself and could bring my full self to work. Although we worked hard, socially it was good too and I grew to learn that there could be friendship in business. Now I know this is where I will stay, I am doing what I love, in the early years; my brother had moved Australia and I would think, I still want to move about, I still want to travel. Maybe I could go to Futerra Australia but it was always friendship that kept me in the UK. That and the sense of, we're building something here and it's exciting.
In career terms I felt it was where I could accelerate, it is very entrepreneurial. If I saw something that needed change I could go do it, I could make that change, I could advance in the business, along with a very heady feeling that we were creating a market. Back then I don’t believe there were any other sustainability comms agencies, I think Futerra was a pretty much the first. The idea of sustainability consultancy existed which is where I came from, but the idea that you need unique communications, you need the power of persuasion, you need to sell, you need to bring audiences along with you, that felt new and heady. There was a lot of push back from the environmental movement saying, ‘people should do this because it's the right thing to do’, but we knew we had to communicate change to bring people along.
Going back to your sustainable fashion question, I love fashion and now that that we are more into the environmental aspect of it, I wonder can I still be proud of the clothes I wear? Do I need to wear a hemp shirt, do I need to wrap my copy of Vogue in a copy of the ecologist for example? But when I put that together with the Futerra feeling of ‘can do’ I very quickly realised that what I needed to do was to carve out my niche in Futerra to create change within the fashion industry. At the time Futerra hadn’t touched fashion at all, and that's where I set out to create change. It turned into more of a career trajectory than I anticipated as so many of our clients are from the fashion industry now.
D: Where you at Futerra when you set up your Swishing blog?
L: I didn’t come up the idea, Futerra’s co-founder Soli with others in Futerra did that during an intellectual exercise on an away day we were on. We were split into groups and given the question ‘how can we make an unsustainable behaviour desirable?’ The group that Soli was in were thinking about shopping and charity shops and came up the name Swishing. Swishing parties were a creation of this thinking and my goodness the thing took off because we managed to land on a confluence of, people feeling guilty about environmental impact and people feeling shopping is expensive. At the time people had the mindset of buy every week, buy three bikinis only trying one and shoving the rest in your drawer, this was before Depop, Vestiaire and others. Clothes swapping parties did exist but were more like glorified jumble sales. What we set out to do was to popularise this notion that you can recycle your clothes, you can swap your clothes, you can be someone who loves fashion and go to a Swishing party, so we did it. What surprised us the most was how much people loved the parties it’s why they came, it was social a whole network sprang up around it. I met people who said ‘I moved here from Russia and I developed my social circle from going to Swishing Parties, that's where I met my friendship group in London’. It was a good outpouring of female love and appreciation, it was great.
D: Of course it has mushroomed at the moment with Nuw, OnLoan, by Rotation, Hurr, Owni, many amazing people doing this now. Are you going to bring Swishing back?
L: What I love about being at Futerra is that we try to always be at the edge, at the moment we are restructuring our business, we will keep the agency, the agency is amazing, making Tommy Hilfiger possible, Econyl’s positioning, all of that will stay. We need more ambitious strategies, more integrated diversity and inclusion. But we are starting a new Futerra Makes service, we're going into partnership and joint ventures for our clients to bring disruptive products to market. The first one is Love Bug with Mars pet care, Love Bug Pet Food which is insect-based cat foods with no animal products whatsoever, in order to get disruptive product off the ground, this could revolutionise the pet care industry.
Swishing was really popular around 2008 but with the big financial crash we had too much on our hands keeping the business afloat, to think about it. We had opened in the States, so it was put on hold as we concentrated on building Futerra into the strong business it is now. We have UK, U.S., Mexico and Swedish based business and are now at the point where we can be innovative and experimental again.
Including Love Bug, we are setting up a solutions union, an independent charitable foundation supported by Futerra. If we had still been working on Swishing I'm sure we would have gotten into a joint venture with a client to do something like Depop, but I think that’s done, the markets grown, it's brilliant, we now have to find out where the next edge is and get the next new product disruption market off the ground.
D: How do you feel you've been able to change mindsets and affect change for business on a global level.
L: By using magic and logic. That's the Futerra core skill set, we are able to do the deep sustainability strategies, the KPI’s (key performance indicators), what issues you need to be working on as a business and what targets you need to set. For Formula One working towards being net zero by 2030, that's our work, but we were also able to put together, the magic, the creation, the branding in the same year. We created the Ad for Fridays for Future in the states on NBC, bringing people out on a nationwide scale to support those strikes. That combination can look funny within an agency but you need both to create change. It's our formula for change, showing our clients that they need to make sure that they are not greenwashing, that you're creating change where change is needed on your most material issues, but you also need to brand it, persuade it, give it the guts and glory and get people sitting up, taking notice and doing things. That magic, logic. One of my favourite examples is Econyl because it's such a technical product. When they came to us I honestly didn't know how the team were going to do it. You would think Econyl would be an easy sell, it is now, but it wasn't at the beginning. Now the product makes sense, to start with it was ‘OK we've got this product is made from fishing nets and it's got this very complicated process with chemical recycling and we turn it into this polymer that is such a high standard it never degrades. It took our team a lot of research and digging in with the product to find out what the truth was and the truth was, that it has infinite possibilities. This can appeal to its audiences who are both architects and the fashion industry. So Econyl, wonderfully credit us with the explosion of partnerships they had, like Prada or that Arkett swimwear is made from Econyl. I think that is a good way of showing you can take a very, born good, technical eco product and make it as compelling and persuasive as high fashion, maybe not high fashion but pretty good fashion. We worked with Fashion Revolution in the early days creating the branding. As a consultancy I've seen the change Fashion Revolution has created; if I was going to characterise the ages of our work within fashion it would be our work with Swishing, the early Re-fashion awards back in 2008 where we wanted to popularise the notion of sustainable fashion, it was a growth market but then it kind of wasn't. We didn't get the work with big clients, they would counter with ‘oh we didn't need to change’ door shuts. It’s sad that it took the super tragedy of Rana Plaza and the setting up of Fashion Revolution to make visible to consumers what was going on. The number of doors I saw opening after Rana Plaza and the creation of Fashion Revolution, proved that there is this multimillion outpouring of support. It did so much to change hearts and minds in the industry and get everyone to do a wakeup call. Obviously there is a lot more to do, but now at least there are great strides from the fashion industry.
D: Covid threw up a lot more on the social justice side.
L: #payup etc
D: It left all the garment workers again.
L: Again, yes again exactly.
D: I'm sure you've seen a huge attitude shift, which you have touched on. What achievements would you say you're most proud of?
L: Wider than only fashion one of our clients is Google, in the early months of the pandemic they realised and then made public, that searches for sustainable lifestyle was up 4550%. There has been this sea change or desire for a more sustainable life. A more just and equitable life so people can see their children and grandchildren living a better life.
Growing Futerra as part of the Futerra team: from navigating ourselves through the 2008 crisis, then the Covid crisis and to manage to grow within the Covid crisis. To have changed the work that we've done, 20 years ago honestly the work wasn't that exciting, when we won the first national climate attitude change campaign from the government, that felt like a big break. But we had to cut our teeth on things like PR support for local government reports that type of thing, important but not very exciting.
Seeing Futerra working with businesses like F1, getting them to change and seeing the potential for Formula One, not only to change their ecosystems or their generators on the tour that make up their footprint, but changing the fuels they put in their engines, work on synthetic fuels with Shell and the other baddies and having the potential while we're waiting for electric and the move over to electric that you could see with the potential to drop in synthetic fuels. Then to see millions of cars on the road being able to use it overnight, that type of thing to me is amazing.
Seeing Futerra being able to really create change in industries. I am proud of the work we've done in fashion, we are not the only people working in fashion, but the fact that it's now
de rigueur that if you are a credible brand in this space you need to have a comprehensive sustainability strategy. Some of which are spinning out new product areas, like Tommy Hilfiger with Tommy for Life and their adaptive range for example. Swishing is probably still one of my biggest and seeing how it helped, birth something if you like.
Growing Futerra and turning it into a really, going enterprise, we have huge ambitions for it next. And speaking very honestly, managing to keep working as a CEO and a mum of young kids, that is, so hard, but so worth it. I never really felt the guilt before lockdown, trying to structure life. Before that I would leave the house, go to the office, but struggling through home schooling, struggling through having the kids at home, suddenly not being able to work. Feeling so immensely guilty about Futerra, which was fine. But having to say goodbye to my kids more than once a day, that's been really hard, managing to keep it going through lockdown and being a working mum. That’s probably my proudest achievement and I still find it very difficult the tension between the amount of hours I'm able to give it here and the amount of things we still need to do to change the world. How much I love my kids and want to be with them, that tensions hard.
D: The word change has permeated our whole conversation right from your mother to yourself and now to your children. It's obviously a thread that runs through your life, and it is a charge that you're leading. Obviously being in the advertising side of things it kind of gives you the power to get in front of people, to spread the message. There are a lot of people suffering from Eco anxiety. How do you spread the message of positivity.
L: Change has been the ethos all the way through, Futerra is based on this notion of being positive otherwise we might as well pack up and go home. The problem of denialism, fatigue and cynicism is really problematic. We did some research with Ipsos Mori three or four years ago and again for the November 2021, climate week, our mission for Furerra has been the same for 20 years, to make sustainable development so desirable it becomes normal. We have recently changed that to Make the Anthropocene Awesome this idea that we're all suffering from Eco depression and anxiety and the idea that we're living in the Anthropocene, which means that human activity is now the dominant force on the planet, more so than natural shifts, like say plate tectonics, which causes earthquakes and volcanoes has. For us at Futerra there is power in that because if we as humans changed this by accident, then we can make it better, we can restore it on purpose and by design. The solutions out there, if you look at Project Drawdown which lists the top 100 solutions to climate change. Number one on the list is something like refrigerants, meaning the methane that leaks out of faulty or dumped fridges all over the world. That's not too hard so lets sort out fridges. Also among the top fixes is the education of women and girls and family planning. More people means more carbon footprint obviously, as soon as you educate women and girls they have smaller families, there are less problems with maternal health and a reduced death rate for kids around the world. All these things are not hard, some of them are tech fixes, some of them are amazing solutions for people humanity and women, and groups and races that have been marginalised. We can put it all together and can create a better future, with sustainability we can meet the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future and can make it better and can enhance the ability for future generations to lead their own lives. Where Futerra are really doubling down on, in all our different work, is around that feeling of belief and optimism, that we can create change, it's not too late, the solutions are out there. Of course we can make changes in our everyday lives but using the power of culture, using the power of business all looping together to create change. It’s less about the individual, it’s more that you're sending a message, when you look at the sea changing attitudes around plastics and meat. Our clients are jumping on these issues now, more so than ever before, because they've got the consumer data that says people want change in these areas. Although it's not down to the individual, I’m a really passionate believer that it's the individuals within a system within the structure and we've got to work with the agents of change, people have power, the consumer has power to send a message through purchasing, by voting with their wallet to show the change you want to see in the world. That's why I feel positive, we've got the power we can do it.
D: What changes would you like to see now and in the future?
L: I think what's going to happen is that sustainability will no longer be a niche, we get people coming to us saying ‘I’d love to work in sustainability, how do I get into it’ and the answer is, ‘do it where you are, do it in your everyday life and do it in your own business’. My colleague Soli is working on a project at the moment around scope X, which leans into your carbon emissions. When you set them against your business they are judged on scope one, two or three which means your own inhouse emissions, your supply chain or your consumers. What’s never really considered, is say, as an agency our footprint is tiny, the impact we have is with our clients. So there needs to be a realisation from the rest of the services industry that you can't only work on your footprint, doing your printing on recycled paper is laughable when you're working with the fossil fuel industry. We have created a piece at Futerra called the Client disclosure report and an absolute sea of amazing agencies have signed up as Creatives for Climate. They are all like us, they are all born good, they've got sustainability at their heart and their core. Not one of the big agencies signed up, some of the big tech agencies signed up to be a B Corp which is brilliant like Havas for example but there has to be a sea change in the service industry, that the work you do as a lawyer, as a banker, as insurance, as recruitment, as communications, where you put your day today effort has to change.
I think fashion needs to speed up in its change, again the solutions are out there I don't want to trash it too much because there are a lot of people creating incredible change, but the rate of adoption of the new technologies is not high enough, the dig in to actually using marketing dollars and spend to promote new sustainable solution isn't there and needs to be more. I'm really excited about this knit together of environment and social, this knit together and this unlocking, this work that we've got to do to become anti-racist as organisations and work on anti-racist strategies with our clients.
D: You did some fantastic work with the UN in the past do you still work with them?
L: We do, the UN is amazing and they have such convening power and credibility. Both I and my colleague Hannah Pang are co-chairs of the outreach group on the UN fashion charter. As our contribution of being a member of the UN fashion charter on climate change we are working on their branding and positioning, their visual identity and their messaging. We partnered with them on the run up to COP26 to launch a handbook on how to engage the consumer on decarbonizing the fashion industry. We also partner with them on the Good Life Goals, where we translate the sustainable development goals into actions you can take every day.
D: Tell us more about the pet food you were talking about. Is it plant based?
L: Its insect based and it’s our first collaboration on Futerra
Makes which is a new product line for us and is based on offering; we've always
partnered our clients to create change but we've always been the agency. Like partnering
with people like Fashion Revolution where we've done some pro bono work or
sometimes there's been a contract like the film that we created with them, all
still agency work. Then we realised that when we get to pitch for exciting new
brands that a mainstream FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) company might be
rolling out, often they give it to their mainstream agency, the ones with the
sales experience. Society needs more disruptive products, we need more products
out there for consumers to buy, based on consumer data and consumer needs, but
also based on real scientific issue. Pets and planet don't very easily co-exist
because of the huge meat consumption involved. For the past five years we have
been developing an alternative. As cats eat insects anyway you can see them
hunting them in the garden, they are obligate carnivores, you can't get them
not to eat meat, unlike like dogs who are omnivores and can survive on a plant-based
diet. We thought what about insect-based cat food? and it's been a long
partnership with Mars to bring it to market. Partnering with Mars also brought
a partnership with the Waltham Science Institute who are the leading experts on
feline and domestic animal health. It is our first one, there will be more and
I'm hoping there will be more in fashion, but the first one is live and you can
buy it in the UK at Love Bug Pet Food
It's the first time that we've launched a new business in 20 years, of course we have grown Futerra by opening new hubs in different countries, but it's our first new entrepreneurial business we’ve put on the market and we are pretty excited about it.
D: I have seen farmers on Countryfile with shipping containers in their backyards growing the insects for things like flour.
L: It's amazing and its such a growth market, there are insect-based protein bars, we work with a really cool factory in Germany with good insect husbandry techniques. Insects have a very low central nervous system we don't know if they feel pain, but we still want to treat them as well as we can.
D: What do you think is it is that drives you forward?
L: I find the whole sector massively interesting, why I wanted to work in sustainability is that it's intellectually challenging, it brings together issues, change and consumers, for me being a consultant is really interesting, you get to work in loads of different industries and loads of different sectors, you really rapidly have to become an expert on something. We've been doing sustainability for 20 years now, but you have to rapidly gen up on a new issue or when you bring on a new client. I love that intellectual challenge and intellectual rigour. I love feeling that I'm creating change, honestly I feel a bit scared about the kids, even with the belief that humanity has the knowledge to save itself, the question is can we create change quick enough? Every year is important now, the fact that the fossil fuel industries are being called out is great. I loved the ruling from the Netherlands court, if your going be net 0 by 2030, what you doing along the way? you can't keep burning everything for the next eight years, come on.
What keeps me going is seeing the change that we can create and working with Futerran’s everyday, we’ve built this amazing company of amazing people who have the desire for change at their hearts. They keep us honest and they want even more change than Futerra is able to create so it's that feeling that we need to do bigger and better and create more.
D: How does your mum feel about all the change that that she has seen? I'm sure it's very different now than it was for her at the beginning.
L: I don’t know, I need to ask her that. They're pretty low impact now, mum and dad don’t have a car anymore, they're not really flying anywhere. I always feel like I want to ask her about the social issues of climate change, but haven’t. ‘How do you feel about all this change you’ve seen in your lifetime, and is it enough, and what do you think will happen?’ I gotta ask her.