Paul Roberts is the inspirational CEO of Aspire, an Oxford-based employment charity and social enterprise that supports vulnerable adults and young people in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire facing homelessness, poverty and disadvantage to find employment and housing.

After getting involved in Bioregional’s One Planet Oxfordshire project, Paul and his colleagues then took part in our One Planet Living integrator training, and created a One Planet Action Plan for the organisation which they are now implementing. I spoke to him a few weeks ago to find out how things are progressing.

How did you first hear about One Planet Living, and what made you decide to use it as your sustainability framework?

We came across One Planet Living through Bioregional’s One Planet Oxfordshire Initiative. We knew we needed to step up our commitment to become more sustainable. When we heard about the One Planet Living framework it clearly fitted with our philosophy, but it’s also very practical, and one that is straightforward to explain to colleagues and all the people who engage with our charity. We knew it would help inspire people and bring them with us.

Too many frameworks are too academic and technical. When we came across One Planet Living it quickly became clear that it’s very easy to interpret. I also like the fact that it’s holistic, and shows us that there are so many things we are already doing that are sustainable, and contribute to this wider mission and vision. We have also had fantastic support from the Bioregional team who have been helping us with our journey.

Being able to upload and publish our One Planet Action Plan on the digital platform has also been very important, and it’s helped us see the role we play as part of One Planet Oxfordshire. It’s only by embracing digital means that we can share and manage our plan with so many people within, and beyond, the organisation.

Collaboration is vital, and that’s why we joined Oxfordshire Greentech in late 2019. It’s another way of showing we want to be part of a network of likeminded organisations. We feel as a social enterprise – a company ‘trading for good’ – there is an important role for us in that network.

How easy has it been to get your colleagues interested and involved in One Planet Living?

Bioregional recently ran a couple of really positive training sessions with some of our colleagues on how to implement One Planet Living, one in our office and the second via Zoom due to the lockdown. We used those sessions as a springboard to engage upwards and get our trustees and more colleagues on board too. Once we’d got our trustees and a core group of colleagues excited, we then started to work with the wider staff team, and got their creative ideas flowing about how we can bring One Planet Living to life and implement it at Aspire.

The overwhelming majority of colleagues want to do more on sustainability, and want to have a structure that enables them to engage effectively. Quite a few colleagues have said they are really proud to see that their organisation is taking this issue seriously, and accept that as an organisation we have a responsibility to do more. Young and older people have been equally positive, which is great – I think it’ll help unify the team to rally around a common cause.

Now we have the first version of our One Planet Action Plan ready, we have a working group including both trustees and staff to make sure we make progress in 2020. One thing that’s happened through the process so far is that it has acted as a catalyst for promoting a more inclusive agenda for sustainability action in Oxfordshire. We’ve started working with Bioregional to explore how to make it more inclusive.

That sounds fantastic, tell me more about that!

Well, we’d like to get more involved with One Planet Oxfordshire if we can. It’s great to feel part of a group of like-minded organisations that have shared goals and a sense of common purpose. But everyone in our city and our county needs to feel like they have a real opportunity to engage. There’s a risk with any collaboration on sustainability that it reflects and perpetuates ongoing inequality in society.

There are people in our society who might feel their voice doesn’t matter, or they don’t realise they could have a role to play too. For example, the experience of living on a low income doesn’t mean you can’t play an important part in creating a sustainable future. These are the very people we are here to support and engage to participate in shaping the direction of travel.

So we are now working with Bioregional to revisit your One Planet Living training package and see how we could train people across different communities in Oxfordshire to start using the framework to drive sustainable change in their own organisations and communities.

We are already working closely with housing associations in our charitable and enterprise work, so we can use these relationships as a platform to engage with people in different social housing across the county, as well as with community organisations working with BAME people. Through this process we need to take the time to listen to what people need, and adapt accordingly.

What are your plans for 2020 and how has the Covid-19 pandemic changed this?

There’s no escaping the fact that the pandemic has disrupted our work. Right now, we are getting our trading activity – external maintenance works – back up and running again. As a charity, we never stopped engaging with people in need, but shifted this quickly to digital platforms. We’ve been helping in particular to support adults in precarious housing need currently in the Oxford hotels. One of the biggest deficits we’ve responded to, is a digital one – ensuring vulnerable people can stay connected and access support, whilst self-isolating.

There will definitely also be a spike in homelessness and unemployment from late summer that we will need to respond to, so we are doing lots of planning around that. It’s really important that we step up to be able to respond to that need and help reinforce a joined up, strategic response to need in the city and county to aid a stronger recovery.

But the pandemic also presents an opportunity to reflect on how we can embed sustainability into our working practices - like embracing homeworking, reducing commuting and the need for so much office space. It also means that we are thinking about how to accelerate some of our sustainability plans – like investing in more sustainable vehicles.

We are also looking at developing new partnerships with local green businesses, including through the Greentech network – if people end up being made redundant as a result of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for us to support them to find new jobs created by the green economy.

What’s next?

I’m looking forward to being a more proactive champion of sustainability in the voluntary, community and enterprise sector. There’s a lot of desire from within the sector to become more sustainable, but there is always a resource challenge. So we might be most helpful if we can lead the way by sharing our work and resources to bring others with us. I think it will be really exciting.

Ultimately we need to have greater collaboration between the environmental justice movement and the social justice movement working towards a common purpose will realise the marginal gains in our communities we all need to see to help turn things around at a bigger level.

What would you say to an organisation thinking about using OPL?

I would say One Planet Living is a really helpful framework because it will help you think things through in a very practical and convenient way, and it will help you bring your colleagues with you too. It also helps you acknowledge the great successes you no doubt already have!

It’s always difficult to prioritise sustainability against competing and often more urgent agendas, but we have to accept that sustainability is the overarching agenda now, that we all have to focus on. Without being more sustainable, business continuity becomes difficult to really think of. All organisations need to reframe their understanding of sustainability and accept that it has to be at the core of everything you do, otherwise whether you’re a business or a charity, everything you do will come under threat.

One Planet Oxfordshire is part of Bioregional’s One Planet Cities programme. It is bringing together people and organisations across the county to deliver on a co-created vision and action plan for a happier, healthier and greener future for all Oxfordshire residents.

Oxfordshire Greentech, set up through the Oxfutures Initiative, is the low-carbon business network for Oxfordshire, a collaboration between Bioregional, Cherwell District Council and Cambridge Cleantech.

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