Solitaire Townsend enjoys a fight. Whether as a 13-year old activist campaigning against a nuclear dump next to her estate, or now as head of the multinational change agency, Futerra, she positively revels in confronting existential threats, be it climate change or Covid-19.

“I’ve been dealing with crises for the past 20 years – it’s my job. But the way I deal with it and how I manage to sleep at night is to look for the opportunity: how we can fight these monsters to make the world a better place,” says Townsend, whose organisation helps change and shape sustainability strategy for a variety of brands.

It’s a message she will bring to Impact Summit on May 20. The annual platform for the brightest business minds, the disruptors and mavericks with a global perspective, Impact Summit has an added significance this year as the world struggles to cope with the consequences of the pandemic. Normally held in Glasgow, this year the event will, by necessity, be hosted online. 

Given the current backdrop, Futerra and Impact Summit are made for each other and Townsend intends to cut through the gloom and promote a message of optimism and opportunity both in combatting climate change and also the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid-19 has given us this massive chance to make some huge changes that will be beneficial to society and individuals when we recover – whether six months, a year or five years down the line,” she argues.

“There will be a lot of companies that can benefit in a big way from that change if they position themselves correctly, so I’m looking forward to giving a real injection of optimism and discussing practical ways that individuals and businesses can respond to this moment.”

This front foot philosophy was forged during the eighties on a Bedford council estate as the then 13-year old Townsend successfully campaigned to stop a nuclear dump in her town. Galvanised by the experience, Townsend’s activism journey eventually led to her doing a masters in sustainability and “geeking out on the science of social and environmental issues” before teaming up in 2001 with a like-minded traveller in Ed Gillespie to set up Futerra. 

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What followed was to be a classic case of being in the right place at the right time with the right message. “Nobody knew anything about sustainable development back then. It was originally just a project investigating how to talk about and engage with sustainable development.”  

A major springboard for the business was the invitation in 2004 to do the research for the UK’s first climate campaign. It proved to be pivotal in shaping the modus operandi of Futerra.  

“That’s when we realised a lot of agencies who were approaching climate change back then were doing it purely from a creative basis, whereas we were putting together some hardcore scientific knowledge and marrying it with the creativity and the storytelling, “ says Townsend. She refers to this combination as the ‘logic’ (science) and the ‘magic’ (creative input).

In 2020, Townsend heads up one of the biggest independent agencies with offices in New York, San Francisco, Stockholm, Mexico City and London. It is also majority female-owned and one of the UK’s first certified B-Corps: an organisation that balances purpose and profit.

The agency’s client base contains some familiar names in the world of environmentalism, such as the Rainforest Alliance, and Econyl, a fibre made from nylon waste that’s been rescued from oceans and landfills. Offering the same performance as virgin nylon, Econyl can be recycled infinitely without ever losing its quality: an ingenious process with seemingly endless applications.

One brand, however, stands out for its apparent incongruity – that pinnacle of fossil-fuelled motorsport – F1. In its bid to appeal to a new, younger and more environmentally conscious audience, F1’s bosses approached Futerra to help it become a net-zero carbon organisation by 2030.

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“They are absolutely committed to relevance in the 21st century and making sure that young people come on board to the excitement, the thrills and the technological challenge of F1 - and that requires them to take climate change seriously,” explains Townsend.

“Before we took them on, we looked at everything from their human rights record to gender policy. I’m not sure Futerra would be working with them if the grid girls were still there. You have to make sure they truly understand how the world is changing.”

It’s a level of forensic analysis that more and more businesses are happy to expose themselves to, not just as a moral or ethical imperative, but a commercial one too. 

Futerra recently undertook a joint project with the Consumer Goods Forum, whose membership includes all the major consumer companies – from L’Oreal to Walmart. Titled the ‘Honest Generation’, the project profiled the under-21s of Generation Z, currently the biggest consumer group on the planet, outnumbering even millennials. It’s a massive cohort that companies fail to engage with at their peril, warns Townsend.

“Honesty, transparency, climate change, gender equality – these are the things they consider to be entrance criteria. That’s hugely challenging for a lot of companies, but it’s also the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity in a generation.”

That message of opportunity is one that will hopefully continue to inspire during the current crisis as businesses struggle to survive and prosper. 
Solitaire Townsend, however, is ready for the challenge.

“This is the stuff that energises me,” she says. “Like in martial arts, when you use the strength of your opponent against them. Covid-19 is a pretty strong opponent and climate change arguably an even stronger one.” 
 
To see the full schedule of Impact Summit keynotes and the 
virtual exhibitor marketplace, go to www.impact-summit.org