Sustainability is one of the key issues of our time, a worthy topic of research and of action (Tracy & Hinrichs, 2017). The impacts of climate change are being felt all around us, with floods, high winds, and fires taking place in close proximity to some of our early years settings. The children in our settings have the most to lose in terms of their future prosperity, yet potentially have the least influence on behaviours now.
As a mum and “nanna” of three wonderful grandchildren, I feel morally bound to do what I can to protect their futures. I have no say in how the huge petrochemical companies function, and very little influence on how governments behave, but I am a fan of Greta Thunberg (Thunberg, 2021), and believe that if we do our bit as individuals we can make a difference. As the founder of a group of 33 nursery schools across the south coast of the UK with around 4,000 families attending and a staff of 850, plus my attempts at advocacy for them, just maybe we can make a little headway. When Tops won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise (Sustainable Development) for thought-leading in the sector, it gave us more opportunities to explain what we are doing and why.
First, let’s make sure we are speaking the same language regarding sustainability, and then I will share some of our journey.
Whilst sustainability is generally accepted to include at least the three themes of environment, economy, and society, (Gionvannoni & Fabietti, 2013) colloquially referred to as planet, profit, and people, the World Economic Development Council (WCED, 1987) includes governance as a fourth; Hawkes (2001) includes culture as an alternative fourth; Mori (2017) includes global justice as a fourth; and Bervar and Bertoncelj (2016) describe five pillars, adding culture and security with the first three. Clearly, there is no complete consensus academically on exactly what sustainability is, never mind how to measure it. Perhaps we can think of it in terms of starting where we are, and moving in an intentional new direction to save ourselves?
The Tops Journey, and Mine
I started my sustainability journey many years before even thinking about any awards. One or two of you may have heard of a TV children’s cartoon series called the “Wombles of Wimbledon” (1973-1975). My nickname from my children was “Mrs. Womble” because of my thrift—I hate waste, and love recycling and upcycling. At that time it was out of necessity because I was broke and a single mum, but they do not remember that bit!
Valuing sustainability and living it out will give you some good stories to tell. One of my least successful moments was in 1996 when I spotted some armchairs in a skip outside a local hospital where we had a nursery school. I rescued the chairs and proudly brought them back into the nursery for the staff room, only to find that staff members had just got rid of them!
Next, I opened a nursery in a failed pub back in 2001 that had oil-fired heating and the boiler broke. Rather than pay for a gas pipe into the building I decided to go electric and had solar panels installed. This decision was much to the annoyance of my finance director at the time who thought the idea would never break even. But it did break even—after only 8 years—and it now generates a profit.
Now in 2023 we have many buildings with solar panels, and our whole fleet of 28 vehicles are electric, which has been very helpful during the fuel shortages and massive utilities increases in the UK over the last 12 months. EVs also save us a fortune in vehicle maintenance and road tax. Also in efforts to save money, we installed insulation, double glazing, water butts, and even a massive underground water tank in 2021 to collect water for our washable nappies laundry hub. The re-investments into the nurseries have been significant over the years.
An eye-opening moment for me happened on a dive boat off Belize, when I started chatting with a fellow scuba diver, David Jones, of Just One Ocean, after he commented on my use of a metal water bottle rather than having a plastic one-use bottle like most others on board. I was using a metal one because I am too tight to spend so much on bottles that cost more than the water inside them, and to use them just once and throw away, such a waste! He was using one because he knew about plastic pollution, and when we returned to the UK he shared his master’s thesis with me, and the penny dropped. I went back to the nurseries and started banning all the one-use plastic I could see, from glitter to straws, water bottles, cling film, aprons, gloves, even trying to reduce disposable nappy use (that has been a struggle). However, what I really needed was sign in by my colleagues so that they wanted to join me on the journey too. In 2016 I organised showings of “Plastic Ocean,” followed by “Cowtopia” (after which I became a vegan, well most of the time, and banned beef in the nurseries), and “Seaspiracy” (fish banned from nurseries). Modern society separates food from its source. Unless we teach children otherwise, they do not associate the food they are given with the animal that was killed, or the plant that was harvested. “Apples come from the supermarket” and “ham comes in plastic from the supermarket.” While diet is a personal choice, I can reduce meat and dairy purchasing in my nurseries, making more intentional, sustainable choices.
More and more staff and parents started not only agreeing, but choosing to enroll their children or work in the company because they shared these views, and wanted to look after the planet and each other. We not only embedded sustainability into our ethos and vision, but into job adverts, job descriptions, bonus schemes, internal quality audits, menus, purchasing policies, marketing blogs, and of course, into children’s environments and activities. In 2020 we changed our branding colours from pink and lime green, to more earthy shades of green and terracotta. This matches our natural-looking internal environments, which feature wood rather than laminates, lots of plants, and natural resources like pine cones and stones. We have not thrown any plastic equipment or toys away, but we are gradually selling it or giving it to parents, and replacing plastic with recycled and upcycled resources. We have undertaken parent education to explain these choices.
This year the operations team is focussing on improving our gardens so the children can grow more food they can eat, more flowers they can smell, trees and bushes to help them breathe, whilst also encouraging local flora and fauna. This has been very exciting, but it is not easy. Many colleagues, like me, have grown up in flats in built up areas, and have no training or experience with gardening, but we can learn. If only early years educators had gardening as an important part of their curriculum, too!
Our sustainability group meets once a month. People from each department attend to ensure all stakeholders are represented. We discuss sustainability in the context of our key performance indicator reports, action plans, and future strategies. We learn from top performers and investigate how we can help the bottom performers. There is always a long list of investments on the wish list, but we have to be pragmatic, as health and safety and staff welfare expenses will usually be prioritised.
We strive to enable each nursery manager and team to do what they feel is most important. For example, managers have enabled coats, boots, books, and toy swapping for parents in nursery foyers; they have established relationships with local businesses resulting in generous donations of time and resources; and connected with local care homes and wildlife organisations. These valuable opportunities do not appear on any key performance indicator list. The impact of social and environmental sustainability can be very hard to measure, but every small step is worth taking.
We have found collaboration and shared learning spread the impact, so we work to connect with suppliers, local community groups, and even the competition. We must stop using fossil fuels, toxic chemicals, one-use plastic, and allowing mass extinction of species—but carry these values forward in a positive, effective way that preserves our mental health and our children’s enthusiasm and joy. To dwell on what will happen if we do not make necessary changes, is the way to despair. Instead, start to talk and think creatively about what is possible now. Ask your suppliers what their carbon footprint is, and where and how their products are made; make it known that you care, and choose accordingly if you can. Let’s make the individual and collective changes that we can, right where we are, without waiting for governments, inspections, or bureaucratic tick boxes. We can keep learning about how to reduce our use of finite resources, and take action every day to preserve this beautiful world for ourselves, for our children, and for all of life.