As she points out, their first clients used to liken a visit to the old office (a former seed factory with a leaky roof) to going on safari. ‘Most people thought we were crazy. We were working in a horrible room and wearing fingerless gloves in winter. Sticking to your principles sometimes means you get very cold,’ she jokes.
But the self-styled ‘green saleswoman’s business nous has now earned her a place in a league beyond most of her green peers. Futerra’s smart new office, sporting a fine roof garden, is just a stone’s throw from the City head offices of the companies that have made it successful.
Just eight years after setting up shop, having only negligible experience of the business world, 33-year-old Townsend is an active player in the burgeoning field of environmental communications, with government departments and major blue-chip companies among her clients. Just last month Futerra was appointed by the London Development Agency to publicise a new scheme that awards the environmental activities of businesses.
Townsend’s biggest advantage was arguably timing – Futerra appeared just at the point companies started to realise they needed to brush up their green credentials. And Townsend is keen to state her firm’s place in history: ‘When people ask what Futerra does, I tell them we save the world.’
The adventure began when she met Gillespie, a marine biologist, during a masters degree course in sustainable development. Gillespie – currently travelling around the world without flying and writing about his exploits in The Observer – and Townsend set up Futerra after graduating.
During her course Townsend realised the need for a new way of communicating sustainable development. Adept at addressing a range of audiences from her time as an actress, she was inspired to make science understandable. ‘I thought, you [the science community] need someone to show you how to communicate.’
So Townsend and Gillespie came up with ten rules for green communication. The rules stressed the importance of being optimistic about people’s ability to solve problems; thanking people who made an effort; and making issues personally relevant to individuals. They are still used by Futerra.
It arranges ‘swishing’ and ‘cadging’ parties, where attendees can swap clothes or gadgets. And Townsend starts to beam when she mentions the page three spread in The Sun as part of the Lights Out London campaign, which saw topless model Kiely pose inside a lightbulb urging readers to turn off their lights.
‘Climate change will not be sorted out in the boardrooms and cabinet offices, but in the media and by the public,’ she argues.
Her passion for making ideas positive and accessible is something clients can vouch for. Adeela Warley, head of comms at Friends of the Earth, says: ‘Solitaire is creative and applies the theory of good communication to her own style, which is characterised by wit and infectious enthusiasm.’
Futerra currently employs 20 staff but Townsend says there is enough work for 80. It has ambitious expansion plans starting with the opening of a New York office by the end of the year.
Chris Tuppen, head of sustainable development at BT, gave Townsend her first temporary job after she graduated and BT is still a long-standing client of Futerra. He agrees that she has found a successful commercial niche.
‘When Futerra was set up, many companies produced sustainable development reports but they were very formal,’ he says. ‘Soli had the vision to spot an emerging discipline and take sustainable development to a broader communications platform.’
Townsend insists that her outlook is the same as when she was arrested during Greenpeace protests. ‘Then I was involved physically,’ she says, ‘Now I’ve cut my hair and put on a suit, but I’m still doing the same as I was then, just in a different way.’
This different way sees her working within both the green movement and the corporate world, treading a careful line between the two sides. Townsend says she stands at the ‘kissing gate’ between corporates and the environment, but she believes it is possible to work in both worlds.
‘I’m happy about being a consumer but I manage my carbon footprint. To those who think I’m a weird greenie, I have manicures. To the people who think I’m not truly green, I won’t fly,’ she says. This means getting a train to visit her parents who live in Italy.
So how does she justify a rather incongruous client list that includes Shell and Greenpeace? ‘You can’t bring about change by putting yourself in a garden with high walls. Something is worth doing if it makes a positive difference,’ she argues.
Clients are discussed during Futerra staff’s weekly lunches, which staff members cook.
Townsend admits staff took a vote before Futerra worked with Shell. But she does, however, draw the line at defence or tobacco companies.
It is clear Townsend relishes the challenges of her job, from sitting on the board at the UN Taskforce on Sustainable Lifestyles to advising the US and Chinese governments on ‘greening’ their citizens. ‘In one day I could be meeting a government minister, the chairman of Shell and then heading to Climate Camp and I will have to defend my space to each,’ she says. ‘But it’s terrible having to decide what to wear.’
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Solitaire Townsend: Winning the contract to develop the first national government climate change communications strategy under the noses of huge PR companies. We were able to demonstrate real knowledge and insight and showed that a small company can win a big contract.
PRWeek: What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
ST: Don’t forget what you believe in. You’re always better at doing things that you feel passionate about. If you’re looking at job opportunities, choose those that allow you to do what you care about over a job title. You’ll be far more successful.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
ST: I’ve had many wonderful mentors but ultimately it has to be my co-founder Ed Gillespie. No-one could teach us how to do this, so we’ve had to work it out for ourselves. We mentor one another. He keeps me on the straight and narrow and I encourage him to become more mainstream
PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize most in new recruits?
ST: Passion and hard work in equal measure. Because passion without hard work is impotent, and hard work without passion is dangerous.
Co-founder, Futerra Sustainability Communications
MProf Leadership for Sustainable Development
MA Shakespeare Studies